Making People See the Way Music Sounds

Industry Perspective

Making People See the Way Music Sounds

by Ron Leach

Two of my passions are photography and jazz, so I was doubly saddened by the recent passing of Herman Leonard who was responsible for many of the iconic images of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and other jazz greats.

Born and raised in Allentown, PA, Leonard eventually made New Orleans his home until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina flooded his house and studio. Fortunately, as Katrina approached Leonard had his negatives moved to a museum for safekeeping, while his staff carried his prints to a second-floor bathroom where they survived the flooding. He subsequently relocated to Los Angeles where he lived until his death at the age of 87.

Leonard developed an interest in photography at a young age while watching his older brother develop images in the darkroom. His photographic studies at Ohio University were interrupted by a two-year stint in the army during WWII, after which he returned to college to complete his education.

Leonard moved to New York in 1948 where he developed a taste for jazz and pursued his passion for photography. With a reputation as a perfectionist, Leonard said he "wanted to make people see the way the music sounded." He developed a strong rapport with many of his subjects who often agreed to be photographed at rehearsals during which Leonard used dramatic studio-style lighting to illuminate his subjects on stage. He also spent considerable time in the darkroom creating exactly the effects he wanted.

Despite Leonard's stunning portraits of celebrities like Brando, Eistein and Jean Paul Satre, it will be his vibrant images of the jazz scene in New York and abroad for which he will be most fondly remembered. In 2004 Leonard published his third and final book, entitled "Jazz Giant and Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard."