Herman Leonard, the photographer who virtually invented the cool, black and white, smoky jazz portrait, died last weekend, at age 87 in Los Angeles. In a prolific career spanning several decades, he shot jazz’s most enduring icons including Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others.
Like all of the great portrait photographers, Leonard had a knack for capturing the essence or soul of his subjects whether performing live, singing in a studio, or seemingly off guard in a private moment. Leonard favored shooting with that great American camera, the large-format Graflex 4×5 speed graphic, which beautifully captured silvery shadows, giving a distinct stylized “film noir” quality to the images. Weegee was another well-known user of this classic press camera.
Leonard’s heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s, when jazz, as a musical form and cultural influencer, was at its critical and commercial peak. It was the sound of post-war America, and Leonard’s images capture its raw and spontaneous beauty. In fact his free forming images have been described as a visual representation of the music itself. Leonard said that virtually all his most famous photographs were improvised and shot on the fly. He was represented in the United States by Chicago’s Catherine Edelman Gallery who wrote recently on the gallery’s website: “While Herman was a fantastic photographer whose images of the golden age of jazz are permanently seared into the public’s conscious, he was also an amazing person, who smiled easily and always saw the good in people. “
Apart from shooting jazz, Leonard also had a second career as a fashion and commercial photographer, working primarily in Paris. Amazingly, these classic jazz photos were put away in storage for several decades and were only rediscovered in the 1980s, to be later published in a book in 1985, The Eye of Jazz. In the 1990s, Leonard moved to New Orleans and thousands of his prints were destroyed when his home was flooded in Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, he had the foresight to send over 60,00 negatives to the local Ogden Museum prior to the disaster, so the sights and indeed the sounds live on.