Archive for May, 2010

The Evolution of David Begun

May 25, 2010

David Begun is a paleoanthropologist who teaches at the University of Toronto.

What compelled the leap between being interested in paleoanthropology and thinking that you had something to contribute to the field? Well, that is an interesting question. I’m not sure I had such lofty ambitions. I just knew that I was interested and wanted to do work in that field. The idea that I could contribute or could advance the work being done — that came much much later on. That really wasn’t a motivation at the beginning. I knew something about paleoanthropology from a young age because I spent my childhood in southwestern France which is a rich area for paleoanthropologists. That’s the area where Cro-Magnon was from. There are lots and lots of caves there. It’s one of the famous sites of early humans like neandertals and cro-magnon man. It’s really the first area that was investigated for understanding human origins. It has a very rich history. My grandparents took me to the famous painted caves where there are paintings of bison and horses on the walls. So there was an interest early on. Later, I recognized that I enjoyed the undergraduate courses that I took in paleoanthropology. I actually went to a university that was renowned for it’s pre-med program. I was in a pre-med prep program. I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was sure I was going to become a physician. I took a course on the subject [of paleoanthropology] and a year later I changed universities because paleoanthropology wasn’t adequately represented at the first university I went to. So it was a passion of mine. I knew I was good at it and I worked well with the profs. I did some teaching. My main motivation was just wanting to do it. I went to my second university — the University of Pennsylvania — knowing that paleoanthropology was something that I wanted to do for my life’s work.

How do you know where to dig for stuff? I get asked that all the time. The first way is by digging where others have dug before and have found stuff. If we want to find new localities there are various methods — some are simple and some are complex. We can use geologic maps that show the age of the rocks. Those are made by geologists who are looking for ore or metals and precious minerals. They make these maps, but we can use them. These maps have been around in various forms since the 1840s. We focus on the ones that show rocks that are of the age we’re interested in. For example, I’m interested in the time period when apes and humans diverged, so I’m looking for outcrops that fall within that timeframe. That’s one way. Then there are also high-tech approaches we can use like satellite imaging. We use satellite imaging to see the surface and see what is very difficult to see on the ground. We can see where rocks are exposed. But we can also use satellite images to look below the surface. So there are a variety of methods.

Has studying human origins made you think differently about humanity? Probably it has. When I first started out I don’t think I thought too much about how humans fit into the grander scheme of theings. Maybe that was due to youth and inexperience. Today I certainly recognize how paleoanthropology contributes to our place in the natural world and that we have a place in the natural world. There’s nothing special about humans in terms of evolution. We have special capabilites, but we evolved like every other organism did. I have a pretty good sense of where we came from in an evolutionary point of view. I think it’s very important for everybody to understand that we evolved like other organisms did. That’s something I try to promote, especially when I speak to younger people. We’re like other organisms on the one hand, but on other hand we have such a huge capacity to alter the environment and it’s up to us to either save the world or destroy it. Those kinds of things didn’t occur to me when I was younger. But like I said, the fact I think about them now could be due to age and experience.

What was the last creative thing you did? The very last creative thing I did was this afternoon, when I was installing some base molding and I coped a joint.


Looking with Leonard Nimoy

May 11, 2010

This summer, Leonard Nimoy is having an exhibition of his photography at the R. Michelson Gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts. The exhibition is called “Secret Selves.” It looks cool.

Leonard is also an actor of some renown.

Hi, sorry I missed your call earlier. I’d just stepped away from my desk. That’s how I knew to call. [Laughs] I’m psychic. I’ve managed to get out of a lot of conversations that way. Can I ask, how did you get my number to call me back?

It showed up on my phone when you called. That’s curious. It’s supposed to show up as Private. Technology. You know, the other day I got a call from someone –- a wrong number. I told them it was a wrong number. Then they called back and said, “Is this Leonard Nimoy?”

I’ll be honest, your number didn’t show up on my phone. I’m psychic too. [Laughs] You very well could be.

Okay, let’s talk about your work. I know that before you photographed your subjects, you conducted interviews with them where you asked “Who are you?” Aside from revealing what would become the specific visual content of the photos, how did those interviews affect the photographs? I think the conversations operated on a lot of levels. The very first thing I tended to do was to try and create an atmosphere where the person could be trusting and know that I wasn’t there to hurt them in any way. We had some very gentle open-ended conversations. Before coming to meet me, they’d prepared a written statement about who they are and what their secret self was about. So I would steer the conversations towards finding out why they’d picked their particular secret self. That gave me a sense of who this person was that I was going to photograph. Maybe those conversations gave me some leads as to what I should be looking for in the camera. After a point it becomes complex, almost logarithmical, and intellect and instinct take over.

Sometimes secrets are secret for a reason. Were you at all concerned about not letting people embarrass themselves or look foolish? Absolutely. A couple people, in the course of my photographing them, did something that I felt was inappropriate. I was getting into territory that I was not qualified to get into. Or I felt that people wanted some form of communication from me that I was not capable of handling. I dismissed those people as subjects. On the funny side of this, after these sessions were over — my wife and I were staying at a hotel not far from the studio — and the morning we were leaving to go to the airport we went outside to wait for a car and we saw four or five of the subjects I’d photographed. They said, ‘Mr. Nimoy, the talks we had with you made us want to explore some of these things — I’m paraphrasing — made us want to explore and talk more about some of the things about ourselves that we hadn’t thought about.’ I’d inadvertently started a therapy group. They asked if I wanted to be in their group. I said, ‘Thanks, but I’m getting on a plane.’ But I was pleasantly surprised at how open and generous people were.

Did the fact that as a famous actor you have very distinct public and private selves make the idea of exploring secret selves particularly interesting to you? Look, my secret self has been out in public for about 45 years. I have acted it out in a lot of different ways, whether it’s through Spock or other things. If someone were to ask me, “Who are you?” I think the answer should be self-evident. Like my wife says, what you see is what you get with me.

I also wanted— Can you imagine? Some of these conversations were incredible. What do you do? What do you do when a lady walks into the room wearing only a bathrobe and tells you that her secret self is ‘a shy whore?’ This happened! So I said to her, ‘Where did that come from?’ She said it’s something she and her brother made up. Her brother! Where in the world! Wow! This is great! Now, she was prepared to go nude. I didn’t ask her to do that. She had a lot of tattoos and showed them very discretely. You might see a little bit of breast.

I remember hearing an architect talk once about how he couldn’t be out in the world without thinking about his environment architecturally. Do you have a similar experience as a photographer? Many years ago I used to carry cameras everywhere. Wherever I traveled -– Europe, the Far East. Everywhere. But what happened was that I realized I was seeing the world through the lens. I didn’t want to. I wanted a broader vision. I didn’t want to be so selective. Also, I realized I wanted my photography to be more conceptual and to express more ideas rather than simply capture moments. I began to work slowly on expressing ideas through photographic ideas. I get an idea about what I want to see and then I set that up and get my cameras and then I photograph it. So I don’t feel like I’m seeing the world on a day-to-day basis the same way that I do through the lens.

What’s the last creative thing that you did? I have just finished working on some episodes of the Fringe television series. I don’t know if you know but I’ve announced that these will be the last acting roles that I do. So not only was that the most recent creative thing I did, it will be the last. I feel quite good about it. The work was good work. There’s a teaser scene on the episode that will air this Thursday night. I felt the work went very, very well. I’m happy to be able to walk away on a very positive note. I’ll see other people in other ways in the future.