Wednesday, August 18, 2010

R.I.P.: Herman Leonard

Herman Leonard Dies at 87; His Photos Visualized Jazz
Published: August 17, 2010

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.

A resident of Pasadena, Calif., Mr. Leonard died after a short illness, said Geraldine Baum, the director of Herman Leonard Photography.

Mr. Leonard never set out to document the birth of bebop, though he wound up doing just that. He was simply a young jazz lover whose camera gave him entree into the many New York clubs — the Royal Roost, Birdland, Bop City — whose cover charges he could not afford.

Shot in New York between 1948 and 1956 and afterward in Paris, Mr. Leonard’s work was long known only to jazz buffs. More recently, it has enjoyed a renaissance, collected in books and exhibited worldwide.

“He was a master of jazz, except his instrument was a camera,” K. Heather Pinson, the author of “The Jazz Image” (University Press of Mississippi, 2010), a study of Mr. Leonard’s work, said on Tuesday. “His photographs are probably the single best visual representation of what jazz sounds like.”

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.

The artists he shot were titans or soon to be, so renowned that each can be conjured with a single name: Ella, Duke, Dizzy, Billie, Miles, Frank. Carefully lighted and meticulously printed, Mr. Leonard’s photos retained the quality of candids, catching his subjects in moments of powerful intimacy.

One of his best-known portrays Ella Fitzgerald, singing in Paris in 1960, eyes closed in fierce concentration, a rivulet of sweat coursing down her cheek. Another shows Frank Sinatra from behind in lonely silhouette. In a third, a still life, the subject is absent altogether: it depicts sheet music, a Coke bottle, a smoldering cigarette and a porkpie hat hanging atop a saxophone case — the implied, unmistakable essence of Lester Young.

By day, Mr. Leonard was a freelance commercial photographer. By night, he haunted the clubs, whose owners admitted him in exchange for marquee publicity stills. He sold occasional pictures, for $10 apiece, to magazines like Down Beat.

But there was little market for jazz photos then. He put his negatives into a box and forgot about them for nearly 30 years.

Herman Leonard was born on March 6, 1923, in Allentown, Pa., and began taking pictures as a boy. In 1947, after wartime service in Burma, he received a bachelor of fine arts in photography from Ohio University. He worked in Ottawa with the distinguished portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh before opening a studio in New York in 1948.

His visual style was born 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.

Mr. Leonard, who shot with a Speed Graphic, was a master printer. Using an old trick of darkroom alchemy, he soaked unexposed film in mercury to enhance its speed in low light. He astonished pharmacists by ordering thermometers in bulk.

After moving to Paris in 1956, Mr. Leonard worked as a fashion photographer. He later moved to the Spanish island of Ibiza, and it was there, in the 1980s, that he pulled from under his bed the box of negatives.

His book “The Eye of Jazz” was published in France in 1985; in 1988, a show of his jazz photos at a London gallery ignited worldwide interest.

Mr. Leonard was married and divorced three times. He is survived by four children — Mikael, from his relationship with Attika ben-Dridi; Valerie, from his marriage to Jacqueline Fauvreau; and Shana and David, from his marriage to Elisabeth Braunlich — and six grandchildren.

Returning to the United States in the late 1980s, Mr. Leonard eventually settled in New Orleans. Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded his home and destroyed more than 8,000 jazz prints. His negatives were spared: by the time the storm hit, they had been removed to a vault on a high floor of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art there.

A project to digitize and archive the negatives is almost finished, ensuring that Mr. Leonard’s jazz photos will be available for generations. Meanwhile, they can be seen in books like “The Eye of Jazz,” published in English by Viking in 1989; and “Jazz,” to be published in November by Bloomsbury USA.

His work seems destined to endure, colleagues say, for its ability to distill its subjects’ very souls.
“Herman would just catch the moment,” Tony Bennett, a longtime friend, said on Monday. “If he photographed Erroll Garner, that was Erroll Garner; that was his whole spirit.”

A version of this article appeared in print on August 18, 2010, on page A17 of the New York edition.

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