The Genius of Herman Leonard

Herman Leonard’s first New York show in 20 years got underway last week at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in SoHo. It’s open to the public every day until June 1, and anyone with a taste for classic jazz, gorgeous black-and-white photography, or both should take a look. If you don’t know Leonard’s name, you probably know him by his work. He has taken some of the most iconic shots of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk—the list goes on. There are, or were, half-a-dozen great jazz photographers covering the same era of the late 1940s through early ‘60s, but Leonard was the genre’s Cartier-Bresson—a genius at capturing the “decisive moment,” when the essence of the man or woman and the music are revealed. Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, one hand on his chain, contemplative, the other hitting just the right-wrong note on the piano (you can almost hear it). Blakey beaming with delight as he bangs out a solo on his trapset. Sinatra, back to the camera, singing before the kliegs, and still, somehow, his very tone comes through. Leonard (who, at 85, is still hearty and good-humored) also captured the human side of jazz: Parker and Gillespie cracking laughs during a studio break; Ellington and Strayhorn sharing a cigarette break; Miles, late in life, fixated on an oil painting; Dexter, in perhaps Leonard’s most famous shot, sitting with his tenor and blowing more smoke than one would have thought human lungs could hold. The lighting is dreamy but not at all soft; these pictures are amazingly sharp, printed on gelatin silver. They’re signed and for sale. I own one of his prints (the Parker-Gillespie, from 1949). A jazz critic gets paid in Leonard photos for one of his regular columns. They are sources of endless pleasure, and they’re probably as safe an investment as any in the art world.

If you can’t make it to New York, a vast assortment of Leonard’s work is for sale at A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans (maybe the best private gallery of its kind in the country). He’s also published a book of his photos, which are reproduced in exceptional quality.

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