Hot Summer, Cool Jazz
The Photographs of Herman Leonard
In the summer, synesthesia abounds. Sunblock smells like the surf on skin, blueberries taste like a blanket in the grass, and the solo of a saxophone sounds like a breeze on a sweltering night. In this sense the photographs of Herman Leonard are double-inscriptions, both acute visualities of jazz's luminary musicians and emotive mimeses of sensation, sound, and atmosphere. With its summer exhibition Hot Summer, Cool Jazz: The Photographs of Herman Leonard, Robert Mann Gallery presents a euphonic ensemble of the artist's seminal images that capture, in dulcet tones and reverberating contrapositions, the coolest cast of characters around.
Considered one of the most prominent jazz photographers, Herman Leonard was born the son of Romanian immigrants in Allentown, Pennsylvania and first picked up a camera at the age of nine. Shy by nature, Leonard found photography to be a way of connecting with those around him—from his high school peers to famous figures like Harry Truman and Martha Graham, whom he photographed as an assistant to master Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. Later assignments would take him to East Asia, where in the 1950s he served as Marlon Brando's personal photographer, and Paris, where he worked as a correspondent for Playboy and Time magazines.
Leonard's most enduring pursuit was quintessentially American: jazz. He established a studio in the heart of Greenwich Village in 1949, and with his passion for the music and kind respect for those he photographed, he was accorded an unprecedented inside view of the New York jazz scene. Making use of techniques like backlighting, strobe lighting, and smoke, his photos dissolve the space between subject and lens, ensconcing the viewer in ambient gradations of shadow and light. Within his illuminated figures, Leonard exacts moments of delicate detail—an upturned lip and crinkled eye, the glint of a spotlight on a microphone—to grasp energy and emotion. Off-kilter framing accentuates the here-and-now feeling of the photographs: it's as if we've been dropped into the scene, hiding in the hazy dark at the base of the microphone or blasted with the trumpet's effervescent air.
Leonard's works are found in numerous public collections including the Smithsonian Institute and Lincoln Center. While his New Orleans studio and at least 8,000 original prints were destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, his complete collection of over 35,000 negatives survived and have been fully archived through a grant from the Grammy Foundation. Charlie Parker's saxophone may no longer sing "Summertime" through the streets, but the timeless photographs of Herman Leonard are still refreshing, revivifying, and indubitably cool.
The New Yorker
August 19, 2013
Most of these classic black-and-white pictures by the great jazz photographer were taken in the forties and fifties, when Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Parker (all subjects here) were in their prime. Typically, Leonard catches the singers and musicians up close and mid-performance, sweating and swinging, often in a haze of cigarette smoke. When he pulls back, the scene opens up, and you feel as if you were right there, notably in a scene at the Downbeat Club in 1948, when Ella Fitzgerald's audience included a delighted Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
The Wall Street Journal
July 26, 2013
A soundtrack for the Herman Leonard exhibition at Mann would have to feature "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," not only because so many of the musicians pictured performed and recorded the song, but because smoke is an important element in many of the images. Fats Navarro and Frank Sinatra are both holding cigarettes as they perform. Smoke curls up in front of the saxophones of Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Stitt.
Smoke is also critical in "Lester 'Prez' Young, NYC" (1948); the saxophonist himself is not in the picture, but is instead represented by the pork pie hat with which he was synonymous. The hat hangs on the opened cover of his sax case; next to it is an empty Coke bottle with a lit cigarette balanced on its rim. The lighting on the hat emphasizes its regular oval shape, which contrasts with the irregular curling of the cigarette smoke. The picture is simultaneously simple and complex, not unlike Young's playing.
Herman Leonard (1923-2010) opened a studio in Greenwich Village in 1949, when it was a center of live jazz, and he made a specialty of photographing jazz musicians. All the players included in this show are of continuing interest: Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Ray Brown, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington and more. A young Sarah Vaughan radiates melody as she sings at Birdland in 1949, and see Duke Ellington's enraptured smile as he listens to Ella Fitzgerald at the Downbeat Club in 1948.