On a brisk Tuesday night, multihyphenate actor-author-photographer- former-Vulcan-neck-gripper Leonard Nimoy is being interrogated by — no, forgive me, is having a Hammer Conversation at the museum with — science writer Natalie Angier in front of an audience desperately trying not to ask him to say, “Live long and prosper.” The thing on people's minds (aside from bad Star Trek jokes) is this: What's with the pictures of the chubby girls?
Nimoy is promoting a book of his photos these days, called The Full Body Project, for which Angier wrote the foreword. You would put this book on your coffee table if you were into having coffee while admiring photos of fat naked women. Fat is not a pejorative word, as Nimoy portrays it. It is something to study, in artistic black and white, its cultural valences and our biased, screwed-up perceptions made manifest in his big-gal versions of Herb Ritts' and Helmut Newton's iconic skinny-gal photos. What if Cindy Crawford gained 200 pounds? What if Naomi Campbell wore a size 22? What if all those 85-pound bulimiarexic waifette supermodels stomping down the Paris runways became supersize models? These questions are nothing new, of course, but it is pretty cool to see the theory mocked up in picture.
A smattering of guests cool their heels in the museum's atrium: backpacked young men leafing through copies of The New Yorker, women shivering in caftans, older men toting copies of Nimoy's book purchased spontaneously from the upstairs gift shop. Not a packed house by any means, but a decent turnout for a photographer who has managed over the years to quietly develop a bona fide new career (if not fully stamp out the old one), who has shown in some great galleries, yet still isn't regarded by the masses as a Serious Artist. I was half expecting the place to be lousy with pointy green prosthetic ears and nerds quoting Shakespeare in the original Klingon. Thankfully, Nimoy is spared that madness. If there are Trekkies in attendance, they are cloaked (stop!).
“How did you hear about this?” Nimoy asks me. On the way in, we happen to have jostled into the elevator at the same time. He shakes my popsicle-icy hand with his large, rough one. “Well, I hope you enjoy it.”
Fifteen minutes into the slide show, Angier has all but hijacked the conversation. Pulitzer Prize, apparently, trumps 30 million rabid science-fiction fans. She is supposed to be interviewing Nimoy, I had thought, but he has begun to interview her. She is in love with the sound of her own voice, Angier, with her ideas, with the intricacies of science. You can see it in the way she apologizes offhandedly for gobbling up the time — but still keeps talking. You loathe it in the way she speaks with her head tilted up toward the ceiling, eyes focused on nothing in particular except perhaps the inner machinations of her own mind, as if she is channeling Mr. Spock himself. She is brilliant, however, so we forgive her — but just barely. Nimoy is a good sport.
Between the two of them they cover the significance of the hip-to-waist ratio; the averted gaze in art and how fat women looking straight at the camera demand that you consider the “whole” person rather than the type; how Nimoy glimpsed the feminine aspect of god; how the mammalian body deposits weight on the skeletal frame; how thousands of years ago, fat people were high-status because it showed you could command many minions to provision you; how Oprah demonstrates that today the reverse is true (her minions cook her yummy, low-cal meals, get her to the gym, monitor her fitness level and generally help her stay thin); and how in the high schools Angier visited for a recent research project, every single girls'-restroom stall smelled like vomit.
Nimoy's images of delectable, dancing, zaftig girls with watermelon breasts, bare backs ripply as trussed pork loins, challenge you to judge them, to say, “You ought to lose weight, you have such a pretty face.” Do it, those pretty eyes say, I dare you.
“I think these people look kind of cold,” Nimoy says, referring to naked Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell. “These people” — in his own version of the pictures — “look more comfortable to me.”
Asked what he thinks about Captain Kirk (“Who?”) and weight gain in males, Nimoy says he's not sure where to go with that question. “In reference to my friend Will Shatner, yes, he's gained some weight.” He's not thought so much about fat men. The artistic process, Nimoy says at one point, is akin to walking into a dark room and looking for the light switch, but being aware that there are holes in the floor and you never know where they are. This is not a problem, however, for the clever fat girl, because no matter how big the hole, she will never fall through it.