Herman Leonard, who shot iconic images of jazz greats including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and others, died August 14 in Los Angeles. The cause of death was leukemia. He was 87.
Leonard attended Ohio University to study photography in the 1940s, and served in the medical corps during World War II. After finishing college in 1947, he drove to Ottawa and knocked on the door of Yousuf Karsh. The famous portrait photographer told Leonard he didn’t need an assistant, but they hit it off over lunch, and Leonard ended up apprenticing under Karsh for a year.
“[It was] a most life turning event for me,” Leonard said in a KPBS interview in 2008.
In 1948, Leonard struck out on his own in New York, where he made deals with jazz clubs for access to rehearsals. In exchange, Leonard provided the clubs with marquee photographs. It was in those clubs that Leonard developed a signature style, backlighting his images for three-dimensional effect.
“I had to do my own lighting in these clubs because the natural lighting was terribly insufficient and unflattering,” he told KPBS. He put one light behind the subject, and another in front of the subject, balancing them so the backlight wasn’t overwhelmed. “It made the picture more three dimensional,” he said.
“I considered him a living treasure,” says photographer Douglas Kirkland, who became friends with Leonard in recent years. “He used some of the earliest electronic flash in the 40s and 50s, with wet cell batteries, and shot with a 4×5 Speed Graphic. He would have only a dozen sheets of film for the night. It was extraordinary what he was able to do. He knew the people he was photographing, and they liked him.”
Kirkland says Leonard “had the dream life of a photographer,” living in New York, Paris, and eventually on the Spanish island of Ibiza. He “lived partially by his archive,” but continued to shoot for various publishers, including Playboy, Kirkland says. “He always found ways of making a living.”
Leonard returned to the US in 1987, and settled in New Orleans in the early 1990s. He relocated to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina, which damaged his home, studio, and more than 8,000 of his archive prints. His negatives, which were stored at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, were undamaged.
Kirkland says Leonard’s notoriety built over time. “He was discovered after he returned to States. His work was more valued in his later years. He also got attention after Katrina.”
Leonard has published several collections of his work in the last 25 years, beginning with “The Eye of Jazz” in 1985 and “Jazz Memories,” in 1995. In 2008, he released “Jazz, Giants, and Journeys” in 2008. Another book, “Jazz,” is scheduled for release this November.
His work has been exhibited at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles, the Morrison Hotel Gallery in La Jolla, California, and most recently at the Lincoln Center gallery in New York.
Leonard is survived by four children and several grandchildren.
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