Iconic jazz photographer Herman Leonard’s archive of 35,000 negatives was almost lost in a hurricane. Fortunately, despite the loss of more than 8,00 original prints, the negatives evaded the destruction of Leonard’s New Orleans studio during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Another fortunate occurrence in the life span of his archive is the presentation of Leonard’s work in the exhibition, Herman Leonard: The Rhythm of Old New York.
Featuring images that focus on his greatest passion, jazz, the black and white works on view show some of the most highly regarded names in one of America’s most original musical art forms. Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday among others are captured in their element playing venues on 52nd Street, Broadway and in Harlem, all epicenters of New York City’s jazz scene.
What is most striking about Leonard’s images is their ability to take viewers back in time to intimate live performances and moments amongst artists and audiences that are full of allure, camaraderie, and playfulness. The photographs offer a stark contrast to the experience of listening to a jazz album in the seclusion of one’s home or headphones.
Many of the images reveal joyful, intense and/or studious contemplation and collaboration between musicians, between artists and clubgoers, and between individuals and their instruments. Photographs full of contrast that utilize light and shadow to maximum effect help to convey a dense sense of atmosphere in which performers captivate their audiences and peers alike.
Close up crops of the hands of Miles Davis capture his fingers and trumpet in a sculptural moment between notes. Expressive body language, an extension of a sound, scale or riff, is beautifully rendered in an image of Gillespie standing sideways with an arched back blowing on his horn. In the same image, Sonny Stitt sits facing forward, knees open, elbows resting on his saxophone, head tilted to the side listening, not looking, at Gillespie – leaning into the sound.
At the center of the gallery space, a glass case with some of Leonard’s jazz mementos and artifacts reveals a bit beyond nightclubs and rehearsal spaces. Fats Navarro and Sonny Stitt album covers shot by Leonard, an old battered camera, and a portrait of Lena Horne accompanied by a personal note from the legendary singer addressed to Leonard are all on view. Leonard’s intimacy with the jazz world, its characters and its players, seems to be essential to his ability to give viewers not only an insider’s view of this era in American history, but also an ethereal sense of the vivacious energy of the period.
Herman Leonard: The Rhythm of Old New York at Robert Mann Gallery is on view through October 14, 2017.