Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1923, Herman Leonard discovered the magic of photography at an early age. During the call to arms, Leonard hoped to be a field photographer, but ironically failed a test which recquired him to identify the chemicals in developer; he became a combat anesthetist instead. After the war, Leonard returned to college and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 1947. Leonard's first stop as a photographer was in Ottowa, Canada, where he sought out an apprenticeship with Yousuf Karsh. Karsh taught him "Tell the truth, but in terms to beauty."
In 1948, following his passion for jazz, Herman Leonard came to New York's Greenwich Village, where his career as a photographer began. He made his way into the swinging clubs of Broadway, 52nd Street, and Harlem. With the camera as his free ticket, he offered to shoot publicity stills of the jazz artists for admission. While shooting at The Royal Roost and Birdland, he photographed and developed friendships with some of the greats of jazz history, including Miles Davis, Charlie parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and many more. Many of his photos eventually ended up on the covers of jazz albums while working for producer Norman Granz, as well as in Downbeat and Metronome magazines.
Throughout his life Leonard travelled around the world, living everywhere from New York City, Paris, Ibiza, to New Orleans. Unfortunately during Hurricane Katrina much of Leonard's archive was destroyed; around 8,000 silver gelatin hand printed photographs were claimed by the storm. Luckily the negatives were spared, as they were sent to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art before Katrina wreaked too much havoc. Herman Leonard relocated to Los Angeles after the event.
Herman Leonard's work is synonymous with jazz itself, cementing the iconography of a moment in time in his own body of work. In the last years of his life, Herman Leonard’s goal was to bring his entire jazz collection, comprising a visual documentation of America’s original art form, back to life and preserve it for future generations. He passed away on August 14th, 2010 at the age of 87.