Herman Leonard, 87

Photographer Herman Leonard, who focused on jazz musicians, dies at 87

(Herman Leonard Photography Llc, Ctsimages Via Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010

Herman Leonard, 87, who helped create an idealized visual image of jazz with his moody photographs of musicians amid the nighttime glamour of spotlights and swirling smoke, died Aug. 14 at a Los Angeles hospital. Music writer James Gavin reported on the Huffington Post Web site that Mr. Leonard had leukemia.

Mr. Leonard had just opened a studio in New York's Greenwich Village in 1948 when he began to photograph musicians. He visited nightclubs with his Speed Graphic camera, offering to take pictures during afternoon rehearsals in exchange for using his pictures as advertising.

His striking images, which he occasionally sold for album covers or publicity shots, were largely forgotten for 30 years until an exhibition at a London gallery in 1988 brought Mr. Leonard belated acclaim and put him at the forefront of photographers of jazz.

From the beginning, Mr. Leonard created an instantly recognizable style, with his atmospheric use of backlighting that accentuated the smoky allure of jazz. His goal, he said years later, was "to create a visual diary of what I heard, to make people see the way the music sounded."

Shooting almost entirely in black-and-white, Mr. Leonard typically portrayed musicians emerging from shadows, bathed in a glow of warm, silver light. He never posed his subjects, preferring to show such stars as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker in the concentrated act of making music.

"When people think of jazz," musician and producer Quincy Jones once said, "their mental picture is likely one of Herman's."

Mr. Leonard chronicled jazz at a time of creative ferment in the 1940s and '50s, depicting such older giants as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as the younger bebop generation of Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown and Miles Davis.

In an oft-published shot from 1948, Mr. Leonard portrayed tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon sitting amid a cloud of smoke, his porkpie hat tilted back, with his saxophone creating a strong diagonal line across the center of the photograph. Another memorable image from 1948 shows Ella Fitzgerald singing at a nightclub as a beaming Ellington and Benny Goodman look on from tables in the audience.

From behind a Paris stage in 1958, Mr. Leonard captured a dramatic shot of a silhouetted Ellington at the keyboard under a triangular shaft of light. Describing how he created the photograph's arresting composition, Mr. Leonard said it was the result of lucky backstage maneuvering.

"I crawled on my hands and knees," he said in a 2001 interview. "I stuck my camera through the curtains, so the audience wouldn't see me, but Duke noticed. He gave me a wink."

A steak for Billie's dog

Mr. Leonard usually worked at nightclubs, but he sometimes visited musicians at home or in recording studios. At Holiday's apartment, he shot a sweetly domestic picture of the singer in an apron, cooking a steak for her dog, which intently waits beside the frying pan.

His favorite subject, Mr. Leonard often said, was the mercurial trumpeter Davis, whom he photographed in the 1940s and '50s and again shortly before Davis's death in 1991.

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