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Talk about being in the right place at the right time. In 1948, fresh off an apprenticeship with the renowned portraitist Yousuf Karsh, Herman Leonard set up a studio in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The neighborhood was becoming the epicenter of jazz, at the precise moment when the art form was moving from big-band swing to smaller, more individualized groups.
Drawn to the music, Leonard lugged his unwieldy Speed Graphic camera to dark nightclubs and studio spaces to document the field’s leading lights—Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan and many others—for magazines such as Down Beat.
The National Portrait Gallery’s retrospective of Leonard’s work is the second photographic exhibit of jazz’s golden age in D.C. in the past two years, with the other being the Goethe-Institut’s earlier exhibit of Francis Wolff’s photographs for Blue Note Records. Wolff’s photographs cover a slightly later period than Leonard’s, but they share a similar aesthetic—low-key, black-and-white depictions of men and women churning with artistic intensity.
The two photographers’ images of this hothouse era are equally iconic. For Leonard, that means Charlie Parker leaning back into a forceful blow of his saxophone; a regal Duke Ellington seated at a piano and lit by bold, angular shafts of light; Art Blakey looking nearly orgasmic during a drum crescendo; and Clifford Brown blowing, shut-eyed and full-cheeked, into his trumpet.
Leonard occasionally experimented, often with good results, as in the case of his “portrait” of an absent Lester Young, which features a Coke bottle and sheet music spilling out of an open suitcase. Leonard also makes nice use of the cramped quarters typical of his subjects’ locations, in one case photographing Nat King Cole sharing an impossibly small space with a bass, some bongos and a guitar.
Leonard also relies heavily on ambient cigarette smoke, stopping just this side of cliché. In his portrait of Fats Navarro, for instance, Leonard captures not only the trumpeter’s expressive face but also curling smoke that appears to be coming from his instrument. And in his photograph of Frank Sinatra, a veil brightly lit smoke becomes a veritable miasma.
Eight years after setting up his studio, Leonard moved to Paris in 1956 and left the jazz scene behind. His timing was exquisite for another reason: Within a few years, many of the artists he chronicled, including Parker, Holiday, and Brown, were dead. (Only one, Quincy Jones, is still with us.) More than six decades later, Leonard’s works stands as a worthy remembrance.
Through Feb. 20 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets NW. Daily, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.