Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Herman Leonard (1923-2010)

with 10 comments

Perhaps only the most enthusiastic jazz fan would recognize Herman Leonard as the ingenious artist behind smokey, backlit photographs that defined the jazz age. However, his photographs are instantly recognizable classics of performers such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. A protege of the great Yousuf Karsh, Leonard was encouraged by Karsh to break out on his own. Starting in the late 1940s, Mr. Leonard not only followed jazz as a musical genre but helped define it too. He used the cigarette smoke present in the clubs as if it were a part of the music itself, and also followed the musicians behind the scenes too.

His memorable photos were countless: Ella Fitzgerald in Paris in 1960, eyes closed in fierce concentration, with a rivulet of sweat coursing down her cheek; unmistakable silhouette of Frank Sinatra; Louis Armstrong munching a sandwich while looking at bottles of champagne; Armstrong lighting a cigarette as Duke Ellington looks on from the piano, a still life of sheet music, cigarette, a Coke bottle, a porkpie hat and a saxophone case that defined Lester Young; silver and smoke portrait of Dexter Gordon; Dizzy Gillespie with his bebop big band, Art Blakey on a drum solo; Duke Ellington and his writing partner, Billy Strayhorn, sharing a cigarette break in Paris; Thelonious Monk at the keyboard; Lena Horne laughing in front of a microphone; and the list goes on. Of all these, the above photo I chose was that of Ella Fitzgerald, in 1949, singing at a New York nightclub as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman looked on from a front-row table. (See all of his great images here, and collected in The Eye of Jazz (1985).

Jim Marshall captured rock and roll stars behind the scenes; William Claxton, Lee Friedlander and Annie Leibowitz all depicted off-guard moments of individuals and bands. But Herman Leonard captured jazz itself—not only its passion and spontaneity but its sound and smell too. After his archival prints were lost to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Leonard became the subject of the BBC program, documenting his painful journey home and his efforts to rebuild his life’s work. It was fittingly called Saving Jazz for Mr. Leonard who died last month (14th August 2010) at the age of 87 immortalized jazz. The jazz age lives on in his photos.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 17, 2010 at 3:35 am

Posted in Culture, Obituary, Society

Tagged with ,

10 Responses

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  1. The exposure is great! I’d be interested to know about the specs of this picture and what equipment it was taken with. But I guess that information is not available, is it?


    September 17, 2010 at 8:24 am

    • Herman used a Speed Graphic camera

      Elvis Smith

      September 21, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    • He used only two lights to achieve the sparse, “moonlight” effect, and was also know to dip unexposed film in mercury to enhance its low-light responsiveness. A true master of simplicity.


      September 24, 2010 at 2:56 am

  2. A truly worthwhile addition to this blog’s continuing expansion of the public eye and mind.


    September 17, 2010 at 4:30 pm

  3. […] really well known or photos that have made an impact in the world. I want you to look at this one HERE HERE HERE. Why makes this photo great in your opinion? If you don’t like it, why? What would make this […]

  4. Thanks for your insights!


    September 24, 2010 at 4:11 am

  5. This is a legendary photo, three true greats in the most natural of moments. It captures the essence of the jazz feeling, which is art and entertainment at the same time!

    I have this poster hanging on my wall and I am surely not the only one. It would be interesting to find out -if possible- whether this is the most popular jazz poster of all time.


    October 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm

  6. […] Johnny Cash and many others helped define their subjects as well as rock ’n’ roll itself. Herman Leonard defined smokey aura of jazz in the United States while in France, Jean-Pierre Leloir was doing the […]

  7. […] found this on the blog  Iconic Photos, where you can find more on Leonard, as well as a link to alot of his great images. Enjoy! […]

  8. […] love from legendary photographers like co-owner Henry Diltz (who has shot over 200 album covers), Herman Leonard, Bob Gruen, Terry O’Neill and many […]

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