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Herman Leonard ‘s 100th Birthday


In celebration of what was yesterday the 100th birthday of photographer, Herman Leonard (1923-2010); we look back at some of his iconic images from his time working in New York and Paris.

Herman Leonard was born in 1923 in Allentown, Pennsylvania to Romanian immigrants. At the young age of 9, he first witnessed an image being developed in his brother’s darkroom and became enthralled with the magic of photography.

After serving as an anesthesiologist in the U.S. Army in Burma during WWII, Leonard enrolled at Ohio University and graduated in 1947 with a BFA in Photography. At that time, it was the only school in the nation to offer such a degree.

Upon graduation from Ohio University, he took a chance and drove to Ottawa, Canada in hopes of working with famed portraiture photographer, Yousuf Karsh. Karsh was impressed with his determination and took him on as an apprentice. Karsh’s photographic advice to Leonard, “Tell the truth, but in terms to beauty.” During a portrait session with Albert Einstein, Leonard questioned the professor about the connection between a musician and a mathematician. Einstein’s response, “Improvisation.” Leonard was inspired by these two influential men and applied their credos to his work.

In 1948, he opened his first studio at 220 Sullivan St. in New York City. With his camera as his free ticket, he offered to shoot publicity stills at the jazz clubs for admission. While shooting at The Royal Roost and Birdland, he quickly developed friendships with the some of the greats of jazz royalty, including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones and many more. His stunning photographs began appearing in Downbeat and Metronome magazines, and on the covers of albums while working for jazz producer Norman Granz.

In 1956, he was hired by Marlon Brando as his personal photographer, and traveled with him on an extensive research trip throughout the Far East. Upon his return to NYC, he was offered a position at Barclay Records in Paris, France and relocated there for the next 25 years. He continued to photograph its prolific Parisian jazz scene, but he also had a successful career working in advertising, for fashion houses YSL and Dior, as well as many international magazines including Life, Time and Playboy. In 1980, he left France for a more tranquil life, and moved his family to the Spanish island of Ibiza. It wasn’t until 1988, that the first exhibition of his jazz photographs was held in London. After rave reviews by the London Times and BBC, he became a sensation with 10,000 people coming to the Notting Hill gallery to view his unseen images.

After living in Europe for over thirty years, he returned to the U.S. and eventually settled in New Orleans, immersing himself in its vibrant and lively jazz scene.   In 2005, as a result of Hurricane Katrina, his home and studio were devastated by 8 feet of water. His life’s work of over 8,000 hand-printed photographs were destroyed by the flood. At the age of 82, he decided to move with his family to Los Angeles to reestablish his life and business.

In 2008, the Herman Leonard Jazz Archive was awarded a GRAMMY Foundation Grant for Archiving and Preservation, and he was honored with the prestigious Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Portraiture. On August 14, 2010, Herman Leonard passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 87. Herman Leonard’s photographs, now considered fine art collector’s items, are a unique record of the jazz scene in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. They are part of the permanent archives of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., where they are considered as essential to American music history as Benny Goodman’s clarinet or Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. His legacy has continued to be honored with major touring exhibitions of his work at The GRAMMY Museum, The Clinton Presidential Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC, and The National Portrait Gallery.

In the last years of his life, his goal was to bring his entire jazz collection, comprising a visual documentation of America’s original art form, back to life and preserve it for future generations.


Herman Leonard Photography, LLC

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