The photography exhibit “Herman Leonard: Jazz Portraits” is a short walk through the history of some of the greatest names in jazz, and — having grown up in a home filled with music — something in which I delight.
Many of the images will be familiar to anyone who has had even a brief introduction to the history of jazz. But you don’t have to be a jazz enthusiast to enjoy this exhibition, on view through Sunday, October 11, at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Herman Leonard, who died in 2010, was born in 1923 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Michener director Lisa Tremper Hanover puts the man and place in perspective: “(It’s) a very industrial blue collar, working class, dedicated population, and Herman Leonard came out of that experience.”
Grew out is more like it. As his biography shows: At age nine Leonard gets interested in photography by watching his brother in the darkroom, discovers that a camera is an “open sesame” to meeting people and overcoming shyness, and ends up being his high school’s official photographer. That’s followed by attending Ohio University, the only one in the nation to offer a photography degree. He received his in 1947 — after enlisting for army service in World War II as a combat anesthetist with the 13th Mountain Medical Battalion in Burma.
Then there was his most influential teacher, portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. In 1947 and 1948 Leonard assisted Karsh in the darkroom and on photography shoots that included such luminaries as Martha Graham, Harry Truman, and Albert Einstein. “We concentrated on portraiture and controlled lighting. I used that training to create the lighting I needed in nightclubs,” says Leonard in a published interview.
The photographer’s love of jazz brought him to New York City. “I opened my first studio on Sullivan Street in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1948. I worked freelance for magazines and spent my spare time at places like the Royal Roost and Birdland. I did this because I loved the music. I couldn’t wait to be with Lester Young at a club and hear him and photograph him playing his music,” he says.
Leonard’s camera provided a free ticket to many of the jazz venues in New York City. He offered to shoot publicity stills of the jazz artists for admission. This eventually led to shoots at the Royal Roost and Birdland, where he photographed and developed friendships with some of the great names in jazz history, including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and many more. Many of his photos eventually ended up on the covers of jazz albums while working for producer Norman Granz, as well as in Downbeat and Metronome magazines.
Hanover believes that Herman’s personality and “desire to honor and appreciate and capture these musicians (and) their own personalities” gave him the ability to blend into an audience or backstage and not intrude upon the performance.” Herman says something similar in an interview: “I saw photographing jazz artists as a visual diary of what I was hearing. I wanted to preserve the mood and atmosphere as much as possible. My goal was to capture these artists at the height of their finest creative moments. I always tried to preserve the pure atmosphere of the club as much as possible.”
In 1956 — after a trip abroad as a personal photographer for Marlon Brando — Leonard headed for Paris to photograph the prolific jazz scene that involved many American jazz artists who were living there as expatriates. He also photographed French recording artists Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Eddy Mitchell, and Johnny Hallyday; opened a studio; and became the European photographer for Playboy Magazine.
Although Leonard’s work in the 1960s and ’70s focused primarily on fashion and advertising, the small Michener exhibition — 15 black-and-white portraits in an intimate gallery — is culled from his jazz works, including concert and rehearsal shots of many jazz greats from the 1940s through the ’60s and providing an up-close-and-personal experience for viewers.
Among the greats captured in their moment in film are the legends of jazz: Vocalists Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday, drummer Buddy Rich, pianists Errol Garner, trumpeters Chet Baker and Clark Terry, and more.
Leonard’s visual dairy, however, was strengthened by what Hanover says was his “great compositional ability, his technical prowess with film, his ability to come to a subject from very distinct angles. All of that translates into a high level of compositional and subject matter interest. You think about Ansel Adams and the majesty of his landscapes. I think that translates equally with Herman Leonard’s approach.”
On his vision, she says, “I think he’s well grounded in the fundamentals, so that allows him to not even think about technique anymore. It was all about just capturing a moment. And I think that’s a very rare and distinctive attribute that he brings to the field.”
The exhibition was organized by the Kennedy Museum of Art, Ohio University. Leonard gifted his work to the university because of his relationship with a professor there. “It was easy to compose an installation that not only resonates with the audience, but is in sync with our presentation of jazz musicians,” says Hanover, alluding to the museum’s series of jazz performances as part of its outreach.
While Leonard’s jazz photos are featured in books — including “Jazz, Giants, And Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard” — and he is the recipient of several awards — notably the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography from the Jazz Photographer’s Association — a large body of original work was nearly lost.
When his 1985 book “Eye on Jazz” attracted international attention, Leonard found himself the subject of solo shows around the world and left Paris. During an exhibit in New Orleans in 1991 he fell in love with its jazz scene and culture and made the city his home. Then in 2005 Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and studio, claiming some 8,000 silver gelatin photographs that he had hand printed himself. He and a crew of assistants were able to gather his negatives and place them in the care of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art for the future. He then moved to Studio City, California, and re-established business there.
Although it was a close call on the large body of his work, he would have still been a presence in print and galleries: More than 100 of his original prints are a part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection, and others are in public and private collections, including those of Sir Elton John, British photo editor Bruce Bernard, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, and President Bill Clinton, who calls Leonard “the greatest jazz photographer in the history of the genre.”
It is not by coincidence that the Michener presents outstanding photography. Last year Hanover curated the work of photographer Wendy Paton. “My personal interest in the fine art of photography translates well here because my predecessor and the chief curator were both practicing photographers” says Hanover. “I think also that Bucks County has a wealth of artists in this genre who are nationally known, so we are very fortunate to be able to work with living artists as well as being a locale for the study of the historical aspects of photography.”
About this exhibition, she says, “I think there is great joy in the photographs, and when you walk into that room, even though it is an intimate setting, you can hear a cacophony of musicians and music.”
Herman Leonard: Jazz Portraits, James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m. $8 to $18 (under 6, free). 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.