Herman Leonard Shares His Vision

Famed photographer Herman Leonard graced Santa Monica College Saturday, Sept. 27, in celebration of his newly installed exhibit in Drescher Hall. Armed with an incredibly impressive slideshow sampling work from across his career, Leonard enthralled a full lecture hall of photography enthusiasts and fans of his work.
From humble beginnings at Ohio State University photographing the football team to quietly capturing the most talented jazz musicians of the forties and fifties, Leonard has spent most of his career in virtual anonymity. Leonard was known only to the musicians with whom he worked, until 1988 when he rediscovered his jazz negatives. Upon finding his previous shots, Leonard compiled and published his first book in 1985 - giving the public the opportunity to travel back in time to a generation of talent.
Among his famous subjects are Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra. Leonard shared fond memories, personal anecdotes, and intimate moments he shared with the jazz musiciansHis craft allowed him both to study and develop relationships with the most revered names in music. Leonard described his photograph of Lena Horne in 1948 as his most important picture. In the mere beginnings of his career, he had the opportunity to photograph the singer in his studio: "She was my first real star."
Leonard has had the devastating privilege of witnessing the rise and fall of some of music's greatest stars. He has worked with Billie Holiday through her tumultuous career. He recalled, "Sometimes she'd look great and gain weight; other times she would relapse." Leonard was among a sea of photographers capturing Miles Davis performance just six weeks before his death. They escorted every photographer out of the pit, but Davis personally requested that "everyone can leave but Herman stays." When describing the resulting photograph, Leonard observed, "The anguish in his eyes is that of a man who knows he's on his way out." This personal experience is just one of the manyLeonard so obviously cherishes.
Leonard brought to photography a fresh outlook. His pieces are predominantly black and white; he describes the contrast to add power and emotion to the subjects. Leonard experimented with single spotlights, strobe lights, and - most progressively - a 4x5 speed camera with two lights, of which he attached himself: "I used scotch tape, pins, anything that would hold it together." His innovation allowed for the creation of intimate, beautifully captured images.
When asked how many shots it took to arrive at a particular photograph, Leonard replied, "One." Leonard has brilliantly captured the candidness of a recording session complete with some of the most weighty names in jazz in a single exposure. Leonard emphasized the significance of a single flash, capturing that perfect, specific moment that will never again exist. Leonard also spoke of one of his favorite approaches to photography: "The musician without the musician." He clarifies that the identifying characteristics of an artist are just as powerful as the artist themselves; he captures with ease Leonard Young in his photograph of the musician's hat, sheet music, an empty Coke bottle, and a burning cigarette.
Leonard's images capture classicism unknown to many modern artists. On digital photography, Leonard stated, "I use it for the convenience." He praises the control granted by the new technology and dismisses accusations of cheating, "You have to accept the image I show you. If I got it by cheating, then I got it by cheating."
Regardless, Leonard may boast of a varied career and even more diverse interests. In addition to his jazz photography, Leonard has worked for Playboy Magazine, has shot icons like Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, and traveled the world to photograph in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. His pieces are powerful - they comprise a simultaneous supernatural and approachable aesthetic while looking absolutely effortless in the process. Both professional and personable, the talent possessed by this man is unquestionable.
For more information regarding Herman Leonard and his pieces, visit www.hermanleonard.com. A collection of Leonard's work may be viewed at the SMC Photography Gallery located on the second floor of Drescher Hall. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The exhibit runs until Oct. 18.