A Lucie for Leonard
Alumnus photographer awarded Oscar of photography
By Jeanna Packard
Photographer Herman Leonard was at the right place at the right time: a Manhattan jazz club in 1949.
His photographs, such as those taken in Birdland, a jazz club located between Eighth and Ninth avenues in Manhattan, captured the essence of musicians such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. These works have earned him international recognition and, recently, a prestigious Lucie Award, which has been described as the Oscar of photography.
The Lucie Awards salute the achievements of photographers from around the world. Awards are divided into five categories: lifetime, humanitarian, visionary, spotlight and achievement, the last of which has seven subcategories.
Leonard, who graduated from Ohio University in 1947 with a bachelor of fine arts degree, received the achievement in portraiture award, which was presented to him at the Lincoln Center in New York City on Oct. 20 by his longtime friend Tony Bennett.
Leonard says he was astonished by this honor.
"I didn't achieve for others," he says. "I made satisfying images for myself. I had no idea my photos would take on this significance."
He attempted to capture, in image, what he felt and experienced in the clubs -- the emotion of the performer.
"Nothing was ever posed; it was off-the-cuff," he says. "There was one photo of Miles Davis … it was moody and dark, and at the time I wasn't conscious of what I was getting until later.
"But I captured his essence," he adds.Waiting in the clubs, he captured candid shots of the artists who were unaware of his presence.
"I would sit there and only shoot when I felt I might get something," he says. "I had to be patient. I only had a few shots all night."
In addition to being limited by the amount of film he had, Leonard had to make the most of his limited finances.
"I was forced to do with very little, so I had to adjust and improvise," Leonard says. "I used two lights while most photographers used six. One was in the ceiling next to the spotlight, and the other was behind the musician. I wanted to enhance the atmosphere, not falsify it."
Leonard has gone from Athens to New York, Paris and beyond with camera in tow photographing legendary names such as Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe and even Albert Einstein, but he is hesitant to acknowledge his achievements.
"I can't take credit for taking the image; I just captured the moment," he says. "A camera can only see what's in front of it. If the situation or expression is there, then push the button."
Still quite emotional from the surprise of receiving the Lucie Award, Leonard said it was an honor to be associated with so many great photographers.
"The little statuette that looks like an Oscar -- just to hold it in my hands is quite unbelievable," he says.
To see Leonard's work, or to read an in-depth biography, visit his Web site at www.hermanleonard.com.
Jeanna Packard, BSJ '10, is a student writer for University Communications and Marketing.
The Kennedy Museum of Art at The Ridges on the university's Athens campus will host an exhibit of Leonard's work through Feb. 22, 2009. Read more.