Thursday, August 19, 2010

Jazz Photographer Herman Leonard Dies at 87

Frank Sinatra, NYC, 1956.  
Silver gelatin print by Herman Leonard

Herman Leonard, an internationally renowned photographer whose haunting, noirish images of postwar jazz life became widely known only in the late 1980s, died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 87. 

“He was a master of jazz, except his instrument was a camera,” said K. Heather Pinson, the author of "The Jazz Image" - a study of Mr. Leonard’s sublime work.

Spare and stylized, Mr. Leonard’s work captured a world of shadow, silver and smoke: dark interiors, gleaming microphones and, threading through it all, cigarette smoke that leaped and twined as if it were an incarnation of the music itself. 

His visual style was born out of necessity. Where most photographers would illuminate a club’s confines with half a dozen lights, Mr. Leonard could afford only two. The result, with backlighting piercing inky blackness, lends his work the quality of moonlight. 

Herman Leonard's background in photography included a year long apprenticeship in 1947 with the famed portraitist Yousuf Karsh, with whom he gained invaluable experience photographing the likes of Albert Einstein, President Harry S. Truman, and Clark Gable. In 1948, Leonard opened a studio in New York City's Greenwich Village, where he did commercial work for Life, Look, Esquire, Playboy, and Cosmopolitan, and made portraits of movie and theater stars. At night, he haunted the jazz nightclubs using a Speed Graphic press camera to produce portraits of the most famous names of jazz as well as those beloved by jazz insiders. 

Dexter Gordon by Herman Leonard
Royal Roost, New York City, 1947

These extraordinary photographs document an explosive time in the history of jazz. Musicians were traveling not only with the Big Bands throughout the United States but also through Europe. Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie - both subjects of Leonard's photographs - were just beginning to collaborate and meld their "modernist" jazz styles together, creating what would become Bop. Leonard photographed them all: Charlie Parker in the midst of one of his madcap performances on the saxophone, taken a few years before his untimely death; a radiant Lena Horne; Stan Getz at Birdland; Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, at the Downbeat Club; Dinah Washington, at the mike at the Newport Jazz Festival; Louis Armstrong and his horn; and many others.

Leonard's reputation is well established. In 1988, his jazz photographs were first shown in London with great success. Since then, Leonard has had over 85 exhibitions worldwide. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has honored him by requesting his entire collection for their permanent archives of musical history. In 1996, President Bill Clinton requested a collection of Herman's work to present to the King of Thailand, an avid jazz musician, as an official gift from the United States government. In addition, Leonard has produced two books: "The Eye of Jazz" and "Jazz Memories", a personal photographic diary of his early career.

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