If someone has managed to condense the magic of live jazz into images, it is Herman Leonard.
Author of some of the most iconic images of the Leonard genre, he captured all the greats acting in the best venues in New York and he knew how to transmit in his images the dark atmosphere and loaded with clubs like the Copacabana or the Cotton Club.
Taking advantage of the series of Jazz Voyages on Duke Ellington is a good time to travel to the 50s and pay homage to one of the most important jazz photographers.
Herman Leonard's passion for jazz and photography arose in parallel in his adolescence. Son of great jazz fans Leonard begins to be interested in photography at the institute thanks to a camera that his brother gave him.
Once finished the school decides to study photography in the universes of Ohio, where Yousuf Karsh was interested in him and turned him into his assistant. From him Leonard would acquire part of his knowledge about light and development, and he would have the possibility of photographing celebrities such as Einstein, Truman or Clark Gable.
Karsh takes a council that will become one of his hallmarks: "portrays the truth, but always from the beauty"
At the end of the 40s Leonard is established in New York, where he begins to photograph the clubs of Broadway, 52nd Street and Harlem.
What initially was born as an excuse to get free access to the best places in the city is gradually gaining importance and his photographs go to illustrate the posters that announce the performances of greats like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald or Stan Getz, Leonard is gaining the trust of the artists and the halls which allows him to "enter the kitchen" and also show everything that happens behind the curtain, portraying the musicians in a much more relaxed atmosphere.
The photographs of Leonard breathe a jazz bar on all four sides: silhouettes of the musicians drawing on the black background, dark and dimly lit environments, smoke, backlighting ....
The photographer knew how to capture in images the magic of live music. For this Lenoard used to work with his studio lighting equipment, placing the flashes in the same place as the spotlights of the room, which allowed him to maintain the essence and lighting of the moment but at the same time obtain a high quality light and work at lower sensitivities.
In 1956 Marlon Brando became interested in him and hired him as the official photographer for his trip to Asia. Then came the leap to major media like Life, Esquire or Playboy but jazz was always Leonard's great passion.
So much so that after the trip with Brando moves to the European capital of jazz, Paris, where he becomes the official photographer of the Barclay Record label. From the French city, Leonard continues to capture all jazz greats on his trips to Europe while entering the world of fashion photography working for companies such as Chanel, Dior or Yves St. Laurent.
Despite being a totally different sector Leonard maintains its identity: simple compositions with a great handling of light.
After an 8-year stay in Ibiza Leonard decides to return to the United States, in this case to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Leonard is imbued with the atmosphere of the city and with his nearly 80 years he continues photographing the local scene. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina destroys her studio and darkroom, damaging part of her archive and forcing Leonard to move temporarily. The painful return home and the process of restoring his file was documented by director Leslie Woodhead in the documentary "Saving Jazz." Despite his more than 80 years Leonard continues photographing daily until his death on August 14, 2010.
His work is a direct influence on many later photographers such as Francis Wolff (who we will talk about one day), author of the photographs of the legendary Blue Note and many great jazz artists consider him the best photographer of the genre.
For Quincy Jones "he wrote the Bible of jazz photography" and for Duke Ellington, Leonard's photography was like his music: "elegant, refined and attentive to the smallest details."