Herman Leonard: Working with a Legend
I worked with the great Jazz photographer, Herman Leonard on a new book of his pictures shortly before his sad death in 2010.
I first got to know Herman when I made a documentary with him for the BBC, “SAVING JAZZ”, about the struggle to bring the music back to New Orleans after the devastations of Hurricane Katrina – in which he lost ten thousand of his exquisite prints.
I have always loved his photographs since I got to know them as a jazz-addicted teenager, and I’ll never forget being alongside Herman in 2005 when he began the work of reprinting his archive in the only surviving darkroom in New Orleans.
Before his untimely death, we collaborated on the new book, called simply Jazz, which includes a range of previously unseen photographs he has recently excavated from his archive.
‘Saving Jazz’, produced and directed by veteran documentary-maker Leslie Woodhead, is a simple film that brilliantly covers lots of bases. It’s about New Orleans and the effects of Katrina, but it’s also about art, culture, identity, commerce and survival. We speak to local New Orleans musicians (Wynton Marsalis, Irma Thomas, Irvin Mayfield,Kermit Ruffins) but the central figure is New York-born, New Orleans-based Herman Leonard. This sprightly 83-year old portrait photographer has, since the 1940s, assembled a formidable archive of jazz photographs.
His signature photographic style – moody, monochrome portraits, brightly backlit, wreathed in a halo of light and shrouded in an elegant fug of cigarette smoke – has become a cliché, but it’s a cliché that he invented, and his iconic portraits (Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Dexter Gordon, Tony Bennett etc) still look remarkable today.
Leonard is a genial and pragmatic host, who finds the city he’s lived in for 13 years almost unrecognisable. ‘What depresses me is not these piles of debris and devastation,’ he says, surveying the damage to his deserted neighbourhood a year on. ‘It’s the isolation – the emptiness
of life that has been washed away.’