Davis, whom he photographed again at Montreux in 1991, shortly be-fore his death, was undoubtedly his favorite subject. “The skin quality was like black satin,”
Leonard said last year. “The bones were well defined and those burn-ing eyes of his were so intense that for a photographer it made it very easy. He was just beautiful.”
Talking about his famous image of the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon in the smoky haze of the Royal Roost Club in New York, he said: “That smoke was part of the atmosphere and dramatized the photo-graphs a lot, maybe over-stylised them a bit.” He admitted his style of photography was gone forever. “Nobody smokes anymore.”
Herman Leonard, photographer: born Allentown, Pennsylvania 6 March 1923; married 1960 Jacqueline Fauvreau (one daughter, marriage dissolved); one son with Attika Ben-Dridi; one daughter, one son with Elizabeth Braunlich; died Los Angeles 14 August 2010.
Herman Leonard was a photographer whose work helped make jazz the epitome of cool. Photography has proved a crucial medium in spreading the popularity of jazz and making the music and its creators the epitome of cool.
The American photographer Herman Leonard helped turn performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Frank Sinatra into the iconic figures they remain. The backlit, black-and-white pictures he took in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s seemed to capture the smoky, shadowy atmosphere of the New York clubs where the singers and musicians appeared, and almost to resonate with their music. Leonard became the most celebrated of jazz photogra-phers, with several coffee table books, exhibitions and documentaries to his name. His photographs adorn postcards and calendars as well as restaurant, office and living room walls the world over, but are also valuable documents of a bygone age and held in collections such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
For a few months in 1947 he worked as an unpaid assistant to Yousuf Karsh in Ottawa, Canada. He picked up lighting tips from the leading portrait photographer of the day and also observed the way he put his subjects at ease. Karsh encouraged Leonard to go it alone and in 1948 he set up his own studio in Greenwich Village in New York, an ideal location to combine commercial work in the daytime and photographing the jazz greats and documenting the emergence of bebop at Birdland, the Blue Note and Village Vanguard in the evening.
Last year Leonard was official photographer for the Montreal Jazz Fes-tival. More recently, he had spent time with Lenny Kravitz in the Baha-mas, documenting the genesis of the rock musician’s soon-to-be released album.
Asked about how visionary his work was, Leonard was typically self-deprecating. “When I was photographing Miles or Dizzy in the early days, I knew these were good and important musicians, but not as im-portant as they turned out to be. I had no idea,” he said. “If I had any inkling, I would have shot 10 times as many pictures. Ninety-nine per-cent of everything I shot was off the cuff. I wanted to capture what was really there untainted by anything I would do. My whole principle was to capture the mood and atmosphere of the moment.