Flood Imperils Work of Famed Jazz Photographer Herman Leonard's images made a visual record of jazz artists stretching from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis. He awaits a look at his ruined New Orleans studio to see what became of his work.
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Flood Imperils Work of Famed Jazz Photographer

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Flood Imperils Work of Famed Jazz Photographer

Flood Imperils Work of Famed Jazz Photographer

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Herman Leonard has been called the Charlie Parker of photography. His dramatic black-and-white images of jazz greats, like Dizzy Gillespie and Parker, helped create a visual record of one of the most fertile periods of jazz. For more than a decade Herman Leonard has made New Orleans his home. Now he waits to get back and find out what's left of his life's work. NPR's Felix Contreras reports.


If you've ever seen a photograph of a jazz musician from the 1940s and '50s, chances are it was taken by Herman Leonard.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: A young Dexter Gordon sits in a chair. A porkpie hat bent at the brim is perched above a fleeting expression of self-satisfaction and discovery. His saxophone's across his lap. A cigarette dangles from his left hand, the smoke climbing slowly toward a light up in the corner. Herman Leonard says he tries to leave as much in the shadows as possible and illuminates only the essential.

Mr. HERMAN LEONARD (Photographer): Photography is nothing but painting with light. I was using the lights as a brush.

CONTRERAS: On Saturday, August 27th, the 82-year-old Leonard, his manager and a small group of friends scrambled to save as many of his photographic paintings as they could. They hustled them up to the third floor of his home, all the while looking over their shoulders at the Category 3 hurricane approaching New Orleans.

Mr. LEONARD: We were watching every minute, like, six different channels, local and national. And then when we saw that--even if it doesn't hit us smack in the middle, it's still going to be rough. So my daughter and her husband and my granddaughter and I decided we'd better get the hell out of here.

CONTRERAS: Before they did, Leonard was able to secure his negatives in a museum vault that he says remained above the floodwaters.

Mr. LEONARD: As far as I know at this point, I think everything is OK. That takes into account most of the old jazz negatives and some of the more newer ones that I've done.

CONTRERAS: But he's heard the studio and darkroom on the first floor of his house were submerged under eight feet of water.

Mr. LEONARD: There were many prints in the collection that were lost that I would have a lot of difficulty getting the same quality again. So that disturbed me. The entire darkroom is gone, but that's replaceable.

CONTRERAS: Leonard estimates he lost thousands of prints, each one reflecting hours of work.

Mr. JOHN HASSE (Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution): Herman is not only an outstanding photographer, but he's also an artist in the darkroom.

CONTRERAS: John Hasse is curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History. Standing in a gallery in front of five Herman Leonard prints of Ella Fitzgerald, Hasse describes the process that brings these photos to life.

Mr. HASSE: Sometimes he has to dodge or burn in part of the image, and those carefully, lovingly created prints of his are works of art. So it's absolutely a loss that those were destroyed in the flood.

CONTRERAS: The Smithsonian has over 130 Herman Leonard photographs in its permanent collection. The images span a career that began when he was a photography student in 1940. Leonard eventually found work as a portrait photographer in New York. To blow off artistic steam, he would take pictures at the jazz clubs along New York's famed 52nd Street.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEONARD: I was interested in recording the moment that I was listening to but visually. So it was sort of like my visual diary.

CONTRERAS: Now many of the pages of that diary are soaked.

Mr. LEONARD: All right. It gives me incentive to go back in the darkroom right away, which I'm really looking forward to, and start printing again.

CONTRERAS: Today Leonard, his daughter and her family wait in Los Angeles. They'd just moved to New Orleans to be close to Leonard and lost all of their belongings. But what upsets Herman Leonard most is the spiritual and human cost to a city that, after living all over the world, he'd come to call home.

Mr. LEONARD: I can't believe it. There was a soul in that city, and that was made by the people. People make a place. That's why I loved New Orleans, not for the physical part but the people. And the spirit that they had has been drowned.

CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: To see Herman Leonard's photos, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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