Thursday, August 19, 2010

485 More Words on Herman Leonard

Courtesy Fahey/Klein Gallery
 When I learned that photographer Herman Leonard died on August 12, I contacted a friend of mine, David Fahey, of the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles. Leonard resettled in LA after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home, along with some 8,000 of his prints. David knew Leonard well, which I unfortunately did not, and admired his work, which I do as well. His gallery also represented Leonard's work. I asked David to tell me what Leonard was like, and to describe his place in photography. Here's what he said:

 Like his close friend, Quincy Jones, Herman Leonard’s persona was the definition of “cool.” At 87 years old he was more hip than most 25-year-olds.  His photographs defined the era when jazz blossomed in America and became a true, original art form in our collective consciousness. Herman’s photographs are a record in the history of this genre of music. The photographs were honest, forthright, and expressive, like jazz music. Often when I hear the music, I think of Herman’s photographs. Like our best documentary photographers, he effectively captured the spirit and soul of his subject matter. In vivid detail, his pictures show us a compelling story of the characters, the places, and the time. He was particularly adept at capturing the drama of performers on stage—whether it be his subject's strength, or vulnerability. Herman’s photographs are exceptionally rich and detailed, and they faithfully describe the atmosphere of the moment. His photographic style—where the light, density, and texture of his photographs are profound and striking—is instantly recognizable.  His photographs are a poetic mingling of expression, emotion, and atmosphere.  Early on, Herman knew how to create myth-making photographs that will continue to endure.

One of the things I found most interesting about David's words was the linking of Leonard to the tradition of documentary photography. Leonard's work also springs from a background in portraiture—he apprenticed for Yousuf Karsh, no less, and later found his own subject.

Courtesy Fahey/Klein Gallery
Courtesy Fahey/Klein Galler
As David notes, he also understood that his work had a function or power that went beyond reportage. So we have these images of musicians working on several levels at once: as history, as iconography, and, as David says, as "story." Jazz being an American art form, we probably wouldn't be too far wrong in saying that Leonard was exploring and explaining American mythology, and, not least, expanding it to include these musicians. The black ones as well as the white ones.

Leonard wasn't the only photographer to do so. Life magazine's Gjon Mili made a little masterpiece of a film called Jammin' the Blues that also captures jazz artists in expressionistic black and white.

But Leonard did it without the advantage of movement and sound, maybe that's why his still images are so wonderful. He caught a sense of peak moment. The drama of the light, the frozen movement of cigarette smoke or gesture...all this tells us that we are seeing something real, and that we are seeing it in an instant of perfection.

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