Herman Leonard is considered to by many to be the most significant photographer of jazz musicians in the post-World War II era.
Werman Leonard is considered by many to be the most significant photographer of jazz musicians in the post-World War II era, as reflected in singer Tony Bennett’s concise description of Leonard and his work: “He’s a painter with a camera.” Leonard lived and worked in Ottawa, Canada; New York City; Paris, France; and Ibiza, Spain before he moved to New Orleans in 1991. The fifteen years he lived in New Orleans, ending after Hurricane Katrina, coincided with the period of his greatest fame and professional recognition, enhanced by a retrospective exhibition and book project organized by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and a series of exhibitions at A Gallery of Fine Photography, both in New Orleans. Leonard’s international fame did not unfold until rather late in life, following an exhibition of his photographs in London, England, in 1988, and not long before he decided to move to New Orleans.
During the 1990s Leonard established himself as a respected figure in New Orleans’ artistic and musical communities. In his adopted city, he embraced a culture and urban environment that offered a natural home for his skills and musical passions. “I remember it as full of life,” he said. “I’ve lived all over the world, but this town is an amalgam of two hundred years, a gumbo of cultures that produced the only uniquely American art form, which is jazz.” Poignantly, Leonard spoke these words not long after he lost his Lakeview home and studio, with his archive of 8,000 hand-printed photographs, to Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed. Leonard moved to Pasadena, California, in the aftermath of the storm, but he returned to New Orleans often until his death at age eighty-seven in 2010.
Leonard was born on March 6, 1923, in Allenstown, Pennsylvania. He first took photographs with a Brownie camera around the age of eleven and later studied photography at the University of Ohio, one of the first universities with a photography program. His military duties during World War II, including the time he spent in India and Burma (where he learned to develop photographs in his helmet), delayed his studies until he returned and completed his bachelor’s degree in photography in 1947. After graduating, he began his career working in Ottawa, Canada, with the famed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, then moved to New York City and opened a studio in Greenwich Village, in 1948.
This was a vibrant era in New York, and Leonard became acquainted with legendary jazz musicians—as well as the clubs and venues where they played—in the years from 1948 to1956. An avid jazz lover, he could not afford the club admission fees, so he used his camera to earn admission, photographing such musicians as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Art Blakey, Frank Sinatra, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, Sonny Rollins, George Shearing, Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, and Dinah Washington. Leonard became famous for the limited and highly controlled atmospheric lighting in his photographs, using a Speed Graphic camera and two strobe lights (he said he could not afford more than two lights). He also became a master printer and darkroom technician, creating his own prints and controlling the quality of his photographs throughout his career. He sold these photographs to club owners, jazz magazines, and record companies, often for album covers.
Leonard’s classic photograph of Dexter Gordon, seated, holding his saxophone and smoking a cigarette, became iconic for both the musician and the photographer, as did his pensive image of Louis Armstrong, sitting quietly, holding his trumpet and trademark handkerchief, gazing into the distance. Leonard photographed Lester Young often, but a unique image shows only the porkpie hat of “Prez,” balanced on a saxophone case filled with musical scores, near a Coca-Cola bottle topped with a cigarette emitting strands of smoke. His photograph of Billy Holiday, poised with hands and eyes raised before a microphone stand, wearing a tailored two-tone blouse, against a dark, smoke-filled background, remains one of his most famous images. Leonard’s photographs of Miles Davis were numerous and memorable, due in part to their long-term friendship and the unlimited access the elusive Davis granted Leonard from 1949 to1991. Leonard later stated that “Miles was the best photographic subject to me ever, in any category.”
In the late 1950s, Leonard moved to Paris, where he became a fashion and advertising photographer, as well as the European photographer for Playboy magazine. In 1980, he left Paris and the fashion and photography scene, moving with his family to the Spanish island of Ibiza. He moved his photographic negatives, a selection of which were published in the 1985 book The Eye of Jazz. In 1988 Leonard moved to London and was the subject of a gallery exhibition of his jazz photographs that brought him to the attention of the art and music worlds.
After this, he returned to the United States, living for a time in San Francisco, followed by New Orleans. Leonard quickly settled into the life of New Orleans, immersing himself in the city’s culture, as well as observing and photographing its recognizable subjects—street musicians, the club scene, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras Indians, French Quarter events, and other attractions. In 1995, he published his second book, Jazz Memories, and began to receive a growing number of awards and professional recognition over the next decade. Leonard continued to photograph musicians and personalities in New Orleans, including Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Lenny Kravitz, who became a friend.
In 2005, Leonard was working with the staff of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, on a major exhibition and a related museum publication devoted to his life and work, when Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city. The museum stored his extensive photographic negative archive, protecting it from the hurricane and the flooding that filled the city, and that destroyed his home, studio, and photographic archives in Lakeview. The museum reopened soon after the storm, in October 2005, and work on the exhibition and book continued, resulting in the book and exhibition in 2006, both titled Jazz, Giants and Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard.
After moving to Los Angeles, Leonard focused on preserving his photographic archives and worked with galleries, collectors, and scholars to advance the documentation and understanding of his career. Saving Jazz, a film by the British Broadcasting Corporation, documented his post-Katrina experiences in New Orleans. During the last year of his life, Leonard was featured in an exhibition in New York at Jazz at Lincoln Center titled In the Best Possible Light. That year two new books on his career were published — Jazz, by Herman Leonard and Reggie Nadelson, and The Jazz Image: Seeing Music through Herman Leonard’s Photography, by Heather K. Pinson. On August 12, 2010, Herman Leonard died in Los Angeles.