Art & Design


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Photographer Herman Leonard photographed the giants of jazz - Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis. And he caught them all in the act in the smoky, cramped late-night jazz clubs.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Herman Leonard almost lost his amazing collection of photos in Hurricane Katrina. As the storm bore down on New Orleans, Herman rushed most of his negatives to a vault at a museum near his home. But many of his prints were destroyed in the flood. Some of the photos that were salvaged went on display last month at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. And we should say we put some of those pictures up on our Web site.

Herman Leonard is now 84 and his latest book includes a full collection of photos that spans his long career. It's called "Jazz, Giants and Journeys."

I recently spoke with Leonard and he says he's grateful for what he was able to salvage but it doesn't quite make up for all that he lost.

HERMAN LEONARD (Photographer): I lost - I didn't have the full count but over 8,000 prints that I had made and accumulated over the years including many that I don't think I could print in the same fashion again. I'm a very good printer but it's just like cooking - if you're going to go in and make your favorite dish with the same formula, it never comes out the same. And that's the same with photographic printing in a dark room. It's never quite the same. But I'm very gratified that I have what I have.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Ms. BILLY HOLIDAY (Jazz singer): (Singing) Southern trees bears a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

NORRIS: Billy Holiday is actually on the cover of your book. And I want to ask you about working with her and I wonder if it was a challenge because you once said that as a photographer, your mission - your charge is to capture the essence of the artist and also to render something that is beautiful. And as beautiful as Billy Holiday's voice was, she didn't lead a beautiful life. Because of her afflictions, her image didn't always match the beauty of that voice.

Mr. LEONARD: No, unfortunately. Well, she was - she had a tough life, you know. Some people are put through the ringer and I believe that's what happened to her. But all of that came through in her voice. There's a suffering and a sadness - not in every song - but broadly speaking, she had a tragic life. And all of that came through just in the tonality of her voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop...

NORRIS: I want to ask you about a couple of specific pictures that you have in your book - pictures of Billy Holiday. They're on pages 90 and 91. There's a picture of her with a really big dog in the kitchen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: And she has an apron on and she's standing at the stove, in front of a big, black gas iron skillet.

Mr. LEONARD: I did those pictures on assignment for Ebony magazine. I went up there to her apartment in Harlem with a writer. And she opened the door and she was wearing the apron. I said my goodness, this is the great Billy Holiday wearing it like a housewife.

And she welcomed us in to her very modest little apartment. And she had a boxer dog whose name was Mister. She had this piece of steak in the frying pan. And she said that this is for Mister, he likes his meat cooked. And I thought that was wonderful. So, I took a picture.

NORRIS: There is another picture on the opposing page. It's Billy Holiday's feet. And those feet are resting in a pair of killer shoes - my goodness...

Mr. LEONARD: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...and this was taken in 1955.

Mr. LEONARD: That's right. And when I saw those shoes, and the chain - there's a couple of little chains hanging down from an ankle bracelet, which is part of the shoe. And I thought to myself, this sort of epitomizes her life. She was in chains most of the time. She never really had any full control of her own life. So I like to photograph images particularly of well-known people, where you don't see their face. But the image does express part of their personality.

NORRIS: I'd love to take you back to the 1940s and 1950s.

Mr. LEONARD: I'd love for you take me back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: At least through our conversation, to New York City, when Manhattan was the epicenter of the jazz world and you started actually taking pictures of jazz artists in those dark, smoky clubs where they worked when so many of the big photographers of the day were really focusing on the studio. Why did you decide to go onto the clubs?

Mr. LEONARD: Well, that's where I could hear the music. And that's where it happened. It happens in the clubs. It doesn't happen in a photo studio. And I wanted to record image-wise to make a visual diary, if you wish, of what I was experiencing. And my main focus was to capture the atmosphere of the club in those days, which wasn't, you know, a cup of tea because of the very bad lighting. And we didn't have super-fast film or super-fast lenses.

But, you know, if you improvise, you can manage. And I used a trick that I learned in an old photographic book, they had said if you want to increase the speed of your film, roll it up in a dark room on a reel, and put it in a developing tank without any developer but in the bottom of the tank, put mercury and let it stand for 24 hours. And that will double or triple the sensitivity of the film.

And I did that. And that enabled me to shoot under very, very difficult circumstances whereas if I had not done that, I don't think I would have had my photo.

NORRIS: I understand that Miles Davis was your all-time favorite artist to photograph. Why did you love taking pictures of him so much?

Mr. LEONARD: Well, his face structure was such that you could not take an uninteresting picture of that man. The skin quality was like black satin. The bones were well defined. And those burning eyes of his were so intense that for a photographer, it made it very easy to get an interesting portrait of this man. You don't have to know who he was. He was just beautiful. So that every time that I was in a situation to work with him, I just popped away and shot and shot and shot. I have hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures of Miles. Anyone of which are valid. He was just glorious.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Your book also includes a series of pictures of Duke Ellington that capture various moods. And there is one wonderful photo where Duke Ellington is sitting at the piano. And it almost seems that the heavens are smiling down on him with these big rays of light. Was that an accident of lighting or is that an example where you went in and carefully composed the lighting so you can capture that shot.

Mr. LEONARD: Oh, no. Oh, no. I had no control over that situation at all. That was done at the Olympia Theater in Paris. And I was backstage poking my camera through the curtains towards the audience. Those where the lights that were lighting the stage - lighting him. And it was an accident. It was - I did not contribute to it whatsoever. It was one of those situations where something is happening in front of you and you snapped the button at the right time.

NORRIS: And to see some of the pictures that Herman Leonard snapped, go to our Web site, His latest book is "Jazz, Giants and Journeys."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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