Last Friday night I was lucky enough to attend the opening of the Herman Leonard exhibition at the Morrison Hotel Gallery on Prospect Street in La Jolla. Herman Leonard is perhaps best known for his iconic images of Jazz musicians in the during the 1940’s and 50’s. His love of photography and music combined to inspire a beautiful backlit style with incredible feeling. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Leonard by name, no doubt you have seen his images: Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington….and on and on. (Oh, and Albert Einstein.)
It is worth whatever you have to do to see prints like his first-hand. I have to confess that I haven’t unwrapped a roll of film in almost ten years, but one minute in the gallery suddenly made me homesick for it. Herman shot with sheet film using the speed-graph cameras of the day. That large piece of film yields just stunning amounts of detail. The beauty is in the details almost as much as it is in the character of his subjects. His approach and the depth he creates with backlight is timeless.
You can imagine what a joy it was to actually meet the photographer himself during the reception! Herman came out for the opening, kindly answering any and all questions and laughing non-stop. He allowed me to impose on him for a picture in the gallery, which I had to work up the nerve to ask for. He couldn’t have been nicer. He said in an interview on KPBS the other day that people often take photographs with little regard for the backgrounds and they wind up with telophone poles coming out of people’s heads….well, I just wound up with picture frames instead. (check out the interview from “These Days”) I believe most in attendance took advantage of the opportunity to pick up a copy of Mr. Leonards’ most recent book “Jazz, Giants, and Journeys” I have to share what my inscription reads: “For Philip- Keep shooting, use film, but above all, Enjoy the music!” How cool is that?