In the summer, synesthesia abounds. Sunblock smells like the surf on skin, blueberries taste like a blanket in the grass, and the solo of a saxophone sounds like a breeze on a sweltering night. In this sense the photographs of Herman Leonard are double-inscriptions, both acute visualities of jazz’s luminary musicians and emotive mimeses of sensation, sound, and atmosphere. With its summer exhibition Hot Summer, Cool Jazz: The Photographs of Herman Leonard, Robert Mann Gallery presents a euphonic ensemble of the artist’s seminal images that capture, in dulcet tones and reverberating contrapositions, the coolest cast of characters around.
Considered one of the most prominent jazz photographers, Herman Leonard was born the son of Romanian immigrants in Allentown, Pennsylvania and first picked up a camera at the age of nine. Shy by nature, Leonard found photography to be a way of connecting with those around him—from his high school peers to famous figures like Harry Truman and Martha Graham, whom he photographed as an assistant to master Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. Later assignments would take him to East Asia, where in the 1950s he served as Marlon Brando’s personal photographer, and Paris, where he worked as a correspondent for Playboy and Time magazines.
Leonard’s most enduring pursuit was quintessentially American: jazz. He established a studio in the heart of Greenwich Village in 1949, and with his passion for the music and kind respect for those he photographed, he was accorded an unprecedented inside view of the New York jazz scene. Making use of techniques like backlighting, strobe lighting, and smoke, his photos dissolve the space between subject and lens, ensconcing the viewer in ambient gradations of shadow and light. Within his illuminated figures, Leonard exacts moments of delicate detail—an upturned lip and crinkled eye, the glint of a spotlight on a microphone—to grasp energy and emotion. Off-kilter framing accentuates the here-and-now feeling of the photographs: it’s as if we’ve been dropped into the scene, hiding in the hazy dark at the base of the microphone or blasted with the trumpet’s effervescent air.
Leonard’s works are found in numerous public collections including the Smithsonian Institute and Lincoln Center. While his New Orleans studio and at least 8,000 original prints were destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, his complete collection of over 35,000 negatives survived and have been fully archived through a grant from the Grammy Foundation. Charlie Parker’s saxophone may no longer sing “Summertime” through the streets, but the timeless photographs of Herman Leonard are still refreshing, revivifying, and indubitably cool.