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Herman Leonard

Miles Davis, Royal Festival Hall

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  • Artwork Info
  • About the Artist
  • About this Photograph
  • Artist Docs
  • Artist News
  • 1989
    Gelatin silver print mounted to archival board
    Signed, titled, dated, and editioned, in pencil, au mount verso
    Printed in 1990
    Edition of 50 (#2/50)

  • Herman Leonard's love of jazz started at an early age, when he borrowed a camera from his brother and started hanging out in the jazz clubs in New York City. It was there, within the smokey rooms and poorly lit stages of Birdland and the Royal Roost, that Leonard honed his craft, practicing and perfecting his backlit lighting that makes his photographs so recognizable.

    After earning his BFA in photography in 1947 from Ohio University (interrupted by a two and a half year stint in the U.S. Army), Leonard sought out Yousuf Karsh, the famous portrait photographer from Canada, who offered him a one year internship – a turning point in Leonard’s career. Working with Karsh, Leonard learned the tools of the trade, meeting such distinguished people as Albert Einstein, Harry Truman and Clark Gable.

    Soon after his time with Karsh, Leonard moved to New York City and opened a studio in Greenwich Village, photographing aspiring actors, singers and dancers, while working for Life, Esquire, Look, Cosmopolitan and Playboy, among others. But jazz was his passion, and a camera around his neck became his ticket into night clubs and dressing rooms of some of the most well known musicians of the time. At age 25, Herman Leonard took on the world of jazz, starting a personal journey which became a life-long project.

    Photographing such notables as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, Leonard became a fixture of the jazz scene, his photographs gracing the covers of more than 200 albums. In 1989, after spending time in New York City, Paris, Ibiza and England, Leonard settled in New Orleans, where he immersed himself in a city known for its lively jazz and blues scene. With two monographs dedicated to his jazz work, Leonard photographed in the local clubs, focusing his lens on young talent and seasoned pros who passed through New Orleans, including Lenny Kravitz, Dr. John and Cassandra Wilson.

    All pieces from his second book, Images of Jazz, are housed in a permanent archive at the American Musical History Department of The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He received numerous awards and accolades and is considered to be one of the finest jazz photographers to date. Herman Leonard passed away at the age of 87 in August of 2010.

  • Acknowledged as a master printer, Leonard’s portrait of Miles Davis is an intense study of a jazz giant in the midst of a world tour, having released two albums, Amandla and Aura, in 1989. This print was made by Leonard in 1990, soon after making the negative. Although this portrait is stated to be from an edition of 50, it is believed that Leonard made fewer than 20 prints of this particular image. Having authored three monographs, Herman Leonard is himself an undisputed giant, responsible for so many signature portraits of the famous that it caused Quincy Jones to observe in one foreword, “When people think of jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Herman’s.” The Smithsonian claims 155 original Herman Leonard photographic prints in its permanent collection. The Herman Leonard Jazz Archive was established in 2007 and, in 2008, the photographer was awarded a GRAMMY® Foundation grant to assist in the archiving and preservation of his historic catalog of over 35,000 negatives.

  • Artist Bio (PDF)

  • The Intimacy Behind Jazz's Seminal Image (PDF) - The New York Times Magazine, May 2017

    Herman Leonard's intimate portraits of jazz greats draw viewers into smoky clubs (PDF)  - The Washington Post, August 2016

    Jazz Has Never Looked Cooler Than It Does in This New Exhibit (PDF) - Smithsonian, August 2016

    Jazz by Herman Leonard (PDF)  - The Telegraph, January 2011

    In 'Jazz', legendary photographer Herman Leonard makes music stand still (PDF) - The Washington Post, November 2010

    Herman Leonard's Eye for Jazz (PDF)  - Vanity Fair, January 2010