Thursday, May 17, 2007
Girth and Nudity: A Pictorial Mission
The New York Times
By ABBY ELLIN
Published: May 13, 2007
BEFORE we begin, let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, Leonard Nimoy is more than happy to do it — the Vulcan salute, the gesture that launched a thousand spaceships. He does so easily, effortlessly: palm outward, fingers extended, the index and middle finger smashed together, the ring finger and pinky touching, the thumb sticking out on its own.
ROLE MODELS Leonard Nimoy’s “Full Body Project” features nude obese women.
“People ask me all the time,” Mr. Nimoy said, carrying saucers of coffee and tea into his art-filled living room off Central Park West. He placed them next to galleys of his forthcoming photography book, which sat near a copy of “Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West,” by Margaret R. Miles, and a folder of news clippings on obesity.
“You see what I have here, about the health guidelines for models?” he asked, pointing a long, tapered finger toward the file.
The basso profundo voice was unmistakable, his words occasionally clipped with his native Boston accent. “They now have to have at least a certain weight to qualify,” Mr. Nimoy added. He looked pleased. This is a subject that speaks to him.
He knows that he is an unlikely champion for the size-acceptance movement; body image is a topic he never really thought about before. But for the last eight years, Mr. Nimoy, who is 76 and an established photographer, has been snapping pictures of plus-size women in all their naked glory.
He has a show of photographs of obese women on view at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Mass., through June; a larger show at the gallery is scheduled to coincide with the November publication of his book on the subject, “The Full Body Project,” from Five Ties Publishing. The Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery in Los Angeles and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston have acquired a few images from the project. A few hang at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York. (Their explicitness prevents the images from being reprinted here.)
These women are not hiding beneath muumuus or waving from the bottom of the Grand Canyon à la Carnie Wilson in early Wilson Phillips videos. They are fleshy and proud, celebrating their girth, reveling in it. It is, Mr. Nimoy says, a direct response to the pressure women face to conform to a Size 2.
“The average American woman, according to articles I’ve read, weighs 25 percent more than the models who are showing the clothes they are being sold,” Mr. Nimoy said, his breathing slightly labored by allergies and a mild case of emphysema. “So, most women will not be able to look like those models. But they’re being presented with clothes, cosmetics, surgery, diet pills, diet programs, therapy, with the idea that they can aspire to look like those people. It’s a big, big industry. Billions of dollars. And the cruelest part of it is that these women are being told, ‘You don’t look right.’ ”
Mr. Nimoy, who divides his time among homes in New York and Los Angeles and on Lake Tahoe, in California, admits that before he began this project, it had never occurred to him that beauty might be culture driven, that a fat body in Africa is treated quite differently from one in the United States. “In some cultures their weight is a sign of affluence: their husbands can afford to feed them well,” he noted.
His enlightenment came about eight years ago, when he had been showing pictures from his Shekhina series — sensual, provocative images of naked women in religious Jewish wear — at a lecture in Nevada. Afterward, a 250-pound woman approached him and asked if he wanted to take pictures of her, a different body type. He agreed, and she came to the studio at his Tahoe house. She arrived with all sorts of clothes and props, “as if she were playing a farmer’s wife in a butter commercial,” he said.
His wife, Susan, who was assisting him, said, “No, we want to shoot nude.” So the model removed her clothing and lay down on the table. At first Mr. Nimoy was very nervous, he said.
“The nudity wasn’t the problem,” he said, “but I’d never worked with that kind of a figure before. I didn’t quite know how to treat her. I didn’t want to do her some kind of injustice. I was concerned that I would present this person within the envelope of an art form.”
But soon he relaxed into it, lulled by the clicking of the camera and the woman’s comfort with her body. He placed some of the shots in various exhibitions, and they invariably garnered the most attention. “People always wanted to know: ‘Who is she? How did you come to shoot her? Why? Where? What was it all about?’ ”
He decided to pursue the subject further and was led to Heather MacAllister, the founder and artistic director of Big Burlesque and the Fat Bottom Revue, a troupe of plus-size female performers in San Francisco. Ms. MacAllister died in February of ovarian cancer, but something she said to Mr. Nimoy in one of their first meetings struck a chord. “ ‘Any time a fat person gets on a stage to perform and is not the butt of a joke — that’s a political statement,’ ” he recalled. “I thought that was profound.”
Initially, he was interested in replicating Herb Ritts’s popular image of a group of nude supermodels clustered together on the floor, and a Helmut Newton diptych of women clothed and then unclothed in the identical pose. Ms. MacAllister and some of her friends agreed to be his subjects. He then posed the women to simulate Matisse’s “Dance” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”
The responses have ranged from joy to horror. One formerly obese woman said the photos terrified her; she said they recalled a picture she kept in her wallet as a reminder of her former self. Other women have thanked Richard Michelson, the Northampton gallery owner, for displaying the images, and even asked if Mr. Nimoy wanted to photograph them.
“I am actually amazed at how little negative reaction there has been,” said Mr. Michelson. “I attribute this in part to the gallery setting, and the fact that Northampton, Massachusetts, is perhaps the most liberal city in the most liberal state in the nation.”
“We do overhear some reductive ‘Is Nimoy into fat chicks’ comments when the gallery room is first entered,” he continued, “but in fact the fun nature of the work and the quality seem to shut people up by the time they leave. I’ve had a few crank e-mails with snide remarks, but not a one from gallery visitors.”
The Big Fat Blog, a Web site devoted to fat acceptance, wrote about Mr. Nimoy’s photographs in 2005. A woman calling herself Nellicat wrote in response: “I’m 5’5" and weigh between 130 and 135. But I don’t feel as comfortable in my own skin as I should. I look at those women strutting, posing, laughing, and I feel real envy towards them. There they are, posing for a man (!) knowing that the whole world will be able to see them naked (!!) and they are LOVING it. Oh, to be that free! To be that comfortable and beautiful in your body — I truly envy them.”
Though most people think of performers as naturally more unabashed than the rest of us, Ms. MacAllister said it is sometimes difficult for them, too. “We get scared and struggle w/self-acceptance and self-love just like you,” she posted on the blog at the time. “Just want you to know that ‘freedom is not free’; the freedom you see us enjoying is the result of constant hard work and eternal vigilance against the ‘tyranny of slenderness.’ ”
Mr. Nimoy was born in Boston to Russian Jews; he speaks and reads Yiddish. He began acting at 8, but his big break came at 17, when he was cast as Ralphie in a Boston production of Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing.” In 1966, he landed a gig on a little television show called “Star Trek,” which ran for only three seasons but would resonate for decades. He spent two seasons on “Mission Impossible” and in 1971 went to U.C.L.A. to study photography. He didn’t graduate, but he has a master’s in education and an honorary doctorate from Antioch College. He hasn’t acted since 1990, choosing to devote himself to art collecting, voiceover work and various philanthropic endeavors, including an artists’ foundation he and his wife run.
Most people know him as Mr. Spock, the terminally rational Vulcan with the famous hand signal. (The signal, which he said was his design, is actually rooted in Judaism. It represents the Hebrew letter “shin,” the first letter in the word Shaddai, which means God.)
In 2002, he published a book of photographs entitled “The Shekhina Project.” Shekhina is the feminine aspect of God; the photographs are sensual, erotic images of women draped in phylacteries, religious garments typically worn by Jewish males. The pictures were very controversial within the Jewish community: some people objected to the nudity, while others were offended by women in traditionally male garb. On the latter point, Mr. Nimoy said that he was not the first to put forth the idea. “There are historical writings of famous Jewish women, daughters of rabbis, who have done that,” he said.
He expects his second book to provoke an equally strong reaction, though he hopes the audience will gain a new perspective on the issue and learn something.
As for whether people will think he has a fetish, he said he can’t help that. “I just have no way of dealing with that,” he said with a laugh. “People will think what they’re going to think. I understand that.”
And what of his own attitude toward fat women?
“I do think they’re beautiful,” he said. “They’re full-bodied, full-blooded human beings.”
He doesn’t necessarily find them sexually attractive. “But I do think they’re beautiful.”