Sunday, August 15, 2010

Remembering Herman Leonard

Too marvelous for words

New Orleans, summertime, pre-Katrina, a crowded Italian restaurant, Maximo’s, and I’m sitting at the bar. The owner, Jason, is pouring Champagne, Krug, from magnums to a large table and topping off my glass and another fellow's whom he affectionately calls Herman. Just a couple of guys sitting at a bar, drinking Champagne, waiting for the night to develop. And in New Orleans, anything could happen. I notice Herman has a little point and shoot camera with him and we start talking about wine, jazz and shooting.

I immediately liked him, he reminded me of a gypsy-freelance photographer that I hung out with in the early 1970’s. But Herman had it together; he succeeded, he had that special vision.

That night, on a steamy New Orleans summer night, it was just the two of us, having a drink and talking about stuff. I knew his work, lived with it whenever I sat in the restaurant. They filled the place. Ella, Duke, Bird, Tony Bennett, Art Blakey, Miles, Dizzy, man I would stare at Lester Young’s hat and coke and cigarette and would swear that cigarette was still burning. Herman took a picture of Charlie Parker in the late 1940’s that was a technical masterpiece. Low light, hand held and detail to the micron. I would stare at Bird’s suit; it had a pattern that was mesmerizing. I loved, loved, loved his work.

Look, there are plenty of sites out there with information about Herman, much more comprehensive than mine. He was a friend of a friend, and we would share a glass of wine together from time to time, that was all. I used to stay at a hotel near his house before Katrina wrecked the neighborhood.

Reggie Nadelson wrote," When I got the news that he had died, I looked at his photographs on my wall and I recalled what Tony Bennett said when he heard Frank Sinatra was no longer with us: ‘I don’t have to believe that.’"

I loved how he took an art form, jazz, and made art from the folks who made the art. And he took us along with him on this historic journey of a uniquely American music form.

One night Herman was dining with Doc Cheatham when I walked into Maximo’s. Doc had a gig in New Orleans and was getting an early dinner (9 PM). Folks would come by and pay their respects to Doc, Herman was shooting, his young assistant by his side. Good times.

I’ve been lucky to know some great photographers in my life. I collect photography and shoot almost every day for the last 45 years, ever since I was a young kid. I have an old childhood bud in California who is a great collector, one of the top in the world, for photography. But my takeaway from Herman, and the treasured body of his life’s work, is that there’s seeing and there’s living. Herman saw, but Herman lived a wonderful American life.

Happy trails, Herman, thanks for sharing your passion, your work and your images with us on this pretty little planet we all call home.

The best is yet to come....


Wink Lorch said...

Thank you, Alfonso for sharing these beautiful jazz pictures and your, as ever, beautiful and deeply personal remembrences. Oh, I so wish to visit New Orleans, and so wish I'd been pre-Katrina.

Zev Robinson said...

Thanks, Anthony. In 1976 or 77, when I was about 18 or 19, I got the chance to see Chet Barker and Dizzy Gillespie and a few blues musicians like Big Mama Thorton in a small jazz club in Montreal, up close, from a couple of yards away. Being young, I didn't realize the legacy and fleeting moment I was experiencing, and regret not having gone to more. Great to have Herman Leonard leave us with a few memories of what is all but a lost world now. And thanks for your tribute, great article.

Thomas said...

Nice tribute, Alfonso.

We had the Village Vanguard in the old days to remind us New Yorkers; I used to live there every weekend back in the mid 60s, when 18 was the legal drinking age.

tom hyland said...

Nice of you to remember Herman. His photos take you to a higher place, don't they?

The shot of Tony Bennett is mesmerizing!

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks everybody. Herman's passing really gave me the Monday blues. He was such a seminal shooter and I know Katrina really took a lot out of him (and a lot of people).

He was such a warm human being who was very street smart, but the street never coarsened him.

Samantha Dugan said...

Thank you for the introduction to what I am sure will be my newest obsession.

Marco said...

Great tributo to a maestro seer of the artistry of jazz. His Dexter Gordon shot with smoke curling around the whole frame is on our diningroom wall. An assistant of his had an amazing blog of images and poetry. She knew what she was procuring. She also lost everything when the levees breached.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Alfonso, this is truly a lovely remembrance. That Bird shot is definitely the most quintessential one taken: the KoKo of photos.

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