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

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; B07

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.

"The skin quality was like black satin," Mr. Leonard told the Associated Press last year. "The bones were well defined, and those burning eyes of his were so intense that for a photographer, it made it very easy. He was just beautiful."

Herman Leonard was born March 6, 1923, in Allentown, Pa. He became interested in photography at age 9 while watching his brother work in a darkroom. He went to Ohio University because it had a photography program, but his studies were interrupted by Army service in World War II.

In college, Mr. Leonard accidentally devised his backlighting technique when a flashbulb directed at a subject's face failed to go off. Curling smoke from a cigarette added texture to the image, and Mr. Leonard's style of high contrast and shadows was born.

After college graduation in 1947, he went to Ottawa to work for renowned portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. Mr. Leonard helped with portraits of Albert Einstein, Harry Truman and dancer Martha Graham, then moved to New York.

Before settling in Europe in 1956, Mr. Leonard spent several months as actor Marlon Brando's personal photographer on a trip through the South Pacific. Later, living in Paris, Milan and on the island of Ibiza, Mr. Leonard did freelance advertising, fashion and travel photography and sometimes shot pictures for Playboy magazine.

Victimized by Katrina

A book of Mr. Leonard's jazz photography was published in 1985, but no one took much notice. In 1988, when he was living in London and "flat broke," in his words, he pulled out his old jazz pictures and took them to galleries. One gallery agreed to show them if Mr. Leonard would find funding for the exhibition and make the prints himself.

More than 10,000 people attended the show, the photographs received an eight-page spread in the London Times and Mr. Leonard's long-forgotten work became a sensation.

Returning to the United States, Mr. Leonard settled in New Orleans, where he established a studio. His personally printed images sold for thousands of dollars, and he was in demand again as a photographer. More than 100 copies of his prints are now in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mr. Leonard's home in New Orleans was flooded, and his studio and a photographic archive with more than 8,000 prints were destroyed. He managed to save about 60,000 negatives by rushing them to a vault at a New Orleans museum shortly before the storm struck. After Katrina, Mr. Leonard moved to Los Angeles to live with a daughter.

Survivors include a son, Mikael Leonard, from his relationship with Attika ben-Dridi; a daughter, Valerie Leonard, from his marriage to Jacqueline Fauvreau, which ended in divorce; two children, Shana Leonard and David Leonard, from his marriage to Elisabeth Braunlich, which ended in divorce; and six grandchildren.

In his final years, Mr. Leonard continued working on books and a documentary and was the official photographer at the 2009 Montreal Jazz Festival. He was often asked to recreate the mood, lighting and spirit of his celebrated jazz photographs of the 1940s and '50s, but he found it impossible to do.

"Nobody smokes anymore," he said.

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