By Jennifer Kirksey
When it came time find a commencement speaker, a group of seniors recommended President Roderick J. McDavis consider some important characteristics. The students wanted someone with energy and charisma, someone who understood what it meant to be an Ohio University graduate.
This year, that person is Herman Leonard, a 1947 Ohio University alumnus and world-renowned photographer whose images captured the history and movement of jazz. Leonard will speak at Ohio University's two undergraduate commencement ceremonies, set for 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13, in the Convocation Center.
Asked to share his reaction to the president's invitation to address the Class of 2009, Leonard said, "Disbelief was my immediate reaction."
From McDavis' perspective, having someone of Leonard's professional stature share insights from a career doing something he loves is a perfect fit for commencement.
"Herman is an incredibly accomplished person, and his career speaks to the unique qualities that define an Ohio University graduate," McDavis said. "He was on the forefront of chronicling a new movement that has defined our social history."
Leonard has received numerous national accolades for his work, including the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Downbeat magazine and the Lucie Achievement in Portraiture Award. In the forward of his third book, "Jazz, Giants, and Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard," published in 2006, Quincy Jones wrote, "When people think of jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Herman's."
Leonard said he is excited to address the newest graduates of his alma mater, of which he has fond memories, "60 years after I graduated from Ohio University and began my life."
"I remember having been the chief photographer for the yearbook. I was privileged to be on the front lines of all the school events," he said. "Particularly I remember the year the Ohio University basketball team played in Madison Square Garden for the (National Invitational Tournament), which I attended and photographed."
A native of Allentown, Pa., Leonard chose Ohio University because it was the only university he knew of that offered a photography degree at that time. And, of course, he saw it with a photographer's eye.
"The first thing that comes to my mind (when thinking of Ohio University) was the early morning fog that enveloped the campus and cast beams of light from the early morning sun, which made for very dramatic photos."
In 1943, Leonard's college studies were interrupted for two years, while he served with the United States Army in Burma. He later returned to Ohio University and earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1947. After graduation, he went on to apprentice with Yousuf Karsh, a master portrait photographer whom he assisted in capturing the images of such notables as Albert Einstein, Harry Truman, Martha Graham and Clark Gable.
Leonard's passion for jazz drew him to New York City's Greenwich Village in 1949. With camera in hand, he photographed and became friends with some of the greatest jazz musicians of that era, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. He was chosen in 1959 to be Marlon Brando's personal photographer for his extensive research trip to the Far East.
Leonard moved to New Orleans in 1991 to exhibit his work and immerse himself in the city's jazz scene. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home, studio and some 8,000 photographs. Luckily, with help, the negatives were gathered and stored in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Following the hurricane, Leonard moved to Studio City, Calif., where he has re-established his life and business.
Sixty-two of Leonard's photographs are part of the Kennedy Museum of Art's permanent collection. Leonard donated the images in 1993.
When asked what words of wisdom he hopes to share with the Class of 2009, Leonard said, "In a nutshell, get out there, experience life and never stop learning."
Leonard has been nominated for an honorary degree in recognition of his distinguished career. The Ohio University Board of Trustees is expected to act on the resolution at its April 24 meeting.