Herman Leonard

05.06.2012 in23:15 in Documentary -->


Born March 6, 1923 and raised in Allentown, PA, at age 9, Herman Leonard witnessed an image being developed in his brother’s darkroom and became enthralled with the magic of photography. As the official photographer for his high school, Herman quickly learned that with a camera in hand, he had an “open sesame” to people and events, that his shyness might have prevented him from experiencing. When it came time for college, Herman chose Ohio University, the only university at the time to offer a degree in Photography. His college studies were interrupted from 1943-1945 as Herman served with the United States Army in Burma with the 13th Mountain Medical Battalion as an anesthetist. Herman returned to college and graduated in 1947 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree.

Herman’s most influential teacher was master portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh, to whom Herman was an apprentice in Ottawa, Canada from 1947-1948. Herman assisted Karsh in the darkroom and with sittings including Albert Einstein, Harry Truman, Martha Graham, and Clark Gable.

In 1949, Herman’s passion for jazz brought him to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where he established a studio at 220 Sullivan Street and captured the swinging clubs of Broadway, 52nd Street and Harlem. With the camera as his free ticket, he photographed and developed friendships with some of the greats of jazz history including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and many more. In 1956 Leonard was chosen to be Marlon Brando’s personal photographer for an extensive research trip to the Far East. In the late 1950′s Leonard headed for Paris and continued to photograph the prolific jazz scene, while working in fashion and advertising and serving as the European photographer for Playboy Magazine.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Herman’s home and studio. The storm claimed some 8,000 photographs that had been hand printed by Herman, a master printer in his own right. As the storm blew in, Herman’s crew gathered the negatives and placed them in the care of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art where they were stored in an upper floor vault. Following Hurricane Katrina, Leonard moved to Studio City, California, and re-established his life and business there. In 2006, Herman released his third book, “Jazz, Giants, And Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard”, published by Scala Publishers, Ltd. In his forward to the book Quincy Jones wrote, “When people think of jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Herman’s.”

Herman’s jazz photographs, now collector’s items, are a unique record of the jazz scene of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The Smithsonian claims 155 original Herman Leonard photographic prints in its permanent collection, where they are considered as essential to American music history as Benny Goodman’s clarinet or Louis Armstrong’s horn. Herman’s work is also represented in numerous public collections including, Jazz at Lincoln Center, NY, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, LA, and the George Eastman House, NY, as well as the private collections of Sir Elton John, Bruce Bernard, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand and President Bill Clinton.

The Herman Leonard Jazz Archive was established in 2007 and in 2008 was awarded a Grammy Foundation Grant for Archiving and Preservation. This project was successful in digitally archiving Leonard’s catalog of over 35,000 negatives, comprising a visual documentation of America’s original art form, preserving it for future generations. Later in 2008, Herman received the coveted Lucie Award for Portraiture from his old friend Tony Bennett at a ceremony at Lincoln Center in NYC. Tony said, “He is my favorite artist of any technique, he’s a painter with a camera.” He also appeared on NBC’s THE TODAY SHOW, and in a BBC documentary SAVING JAZZ, which chronicled his experiences from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In June 2009, Leonard returned to his alma mater and was the commencement speaker for the graduating class of Ohio University, at which time he also received an honorary doctorate.

On August 14, 2010, Herman Leonard passed away, surrounded by his family in Los Angeles, CA at the age of 87. Throughout his long life, he traveled and lived around the world, capturing images with his distinctive style. Whether he was photographing Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong or a street musician in his home in New Orleans, Herman’s warmth and engaging personality continued to open doors for him and his camera; to reveal a world we might have missed. Certainly Herman Leonard’s iconic photographs will long be remembered not only for their historic significance, but for their artistic beauty.