Makes You Stop And Wonder

The work is not only iconic, it’s incredibly well done. Is timeless the best way I can describe it? No, it doesn’t really do it justice. Neither do these crumby, fake polaroids shot on my phone, but I’m asking a temporary forgiveness until I get my camera back, or camera going I should say.

Herman Leonard, 85, is a legend in the music business, and photography world for that matter, but I think the foundation of his success is the music. I’m not sure if he plays, or ever has, but his images of music are impossible to forget. Black and white, mostly medium to large format, and dripping with smoke and history, these pictures are forever a part of the world’s collective knowledge of music. Sarah, Dizzy, Louis, Lena, Billie, and most importantly, Miles, all I need to mention.

Leonard began in the 40’s when race was a dominant card, but somehow managed to connect, even when someone like Lena couldn’t share a drink with him after the shoot because she could not sit in the general admission area due to her skin color.

Sitting and listening to Herman I am conflicted. I am in absolute awe of the ability to make these pictures, and the more you know about them, the more, if you know ANYTHING about photography, you realize were even more difficult than they look. Two, three, four sheets of 4×5 at a time, and that’s it. Strobes hidden as they popped into life freezing time capsules as Herman hid backstage. But I am also sad because I know these days are gone, both in music and photography.

Intimate is SO rare these days, a development of our own fabrication, and now we pay the consequences of short attention spans, everything rushed and on deadline, creating a shallowness that forces our mind to drift and our eyes to look away.

I’m conflicted because Herman is so good, so nice and there will be not be another.

I made many, many notes of this event, which I had planned to share, but someone saved us from this translation. In the audience were relatives of Miles Davis, and friends of Miles, one of whom stood up and said, “I was friends with Miles, and Herman, you were special to him.” There isn’t anything I can say better than that, so if you haven’t had a chance to see Herman’s work, I urge you to do so.

I should also mention Leonard was not alone on this day, but was speaking with Brian Cross, who goes by the name B+, another LA based photographer, but someone who originates from Ireland. Brian, soft spoken and modest, had the difficult task of following Leonard. B+ has spent the better part of the last ten years, perhaps more, shooting and living in the world of Hip Hop, and like Leonard has an intimacy with his associates that doesn’t come along every day.

The adjacent studio at the Pacific Design center held B+’s show, which was a fluid, active presentation, that to me was subtle in print size, but proved to me one simple thing…he is a photographer and not a showman. Many of Brian’s images are simple, quiet moments, as opposed to huge, lit, large crew, overdone music pictures that we are so fond of assigning these days. Through his images you could tell that B+ was a guy you would love to hang out with, someone that had one version of himself, not one public and one private. It also showed me that he also has a camera all the time, not just when he is on assignment, and that is something I really respect.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Brian, who said when asked, “What would life be without photography?”

“That isn’t an option,” he said.

2 responses to “Makes You Stop And Wonder”

  1. Kenneth Jarecke says:

    How cool. We don’t get chances to see guys like this out in the sticks.

    I’m not so sure about your prognosis. I’d be more sure about saying we’ll never see another Coltrane or Miles, but I’m not so sure about that either.

    So much of what we do is influenced by the market we serve (as much as we’d like to think not), and the equipment we use. A lot of Leonard’s look was dictated by what his equipment could do and what the market expected. Of course, he both delivered on and redefined these expectations.

    What I’m saying is right now we don’t have a market, but we do have more options in regard to what the equipment can actually do.

    I haven’t seen B+’s work, but it sounds like he has the access. So, if his vision called for it, or even just as an exercise he could go into a hip-hop club with a basket full of slaved strobes and mimic what Herman did, with about 1% of the difficulty level. After that he could take those sixty year old tools and morph them up to the next level, according to his vision. Plus, he also has a market for his work.

    Wouldn’t or couldn’t that be the next Herman Leonard (if the images were there of course)?

  2. SmogRanch says:


    I’m not sure Herman had a market. And his work was done with a very specific style in mind, strobes, speed graphic, dramatic light, etc.
    I think almost every aspect of these two guys, and their philosophy, and markets are different. They are both representations of a time, an era, but also of their photographic worlds, not to mention smoke free bars and clubs.
    I think with 1% of the difficulty level you don’t get the same images. I think what I see today is a far looser style of images, that just don’t have the craft behind them. I think that ease is part of the reason why so much work looks the same today. Same camera, same lenses, same software and ability to shoot ourselves silly.
    Herman knew what we wanted, knew where to put the lights, and also knew the music, knew when and how the drummer would hold his sticks, and when he would expose a sheet of 4×5 so that you could see the drummers movement.
    This is what really blew me away with a lot of his images. The timing was fantastic. And there weren’t 85 images to edit through. He would shoot 4 or 5 pictures, all different, and that’s’ it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *