Herman Leonard Biography

Herman Leonard was born in Allentown, PA in 1923. At the young age of 9, he witnessed an image being developed in his brother’s darkroom and became enthralled with the magic of photography.

In 1947, after a stint in Burma during WWII, Herman Leonard graduated from Ohio University with a BFA in Photography, the only school in the nation to offer such a degree at the time. He then drove straight to Yousuf Karsh’s house in Ottowa, Canada and asked for a job. Karsh wasn’t hiring but was impressed enough with young Herman Leonard to take him on as an apprentice. After the invaluable experience of working with Karsh for a year, Herman Leonard hightailed it to New York City and opened his own studio. With his 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.

In the late 1950’s photographer Herman Leonard headed for Paris and continued to photograph the prolific jazz scene, while working in fashion, advertising and for magazines including Life, Time and Playboy. In 1988, the first exhibition of Herman Leonard’s photography was held at the Special Photographers Company in London. In the first month, over 10,000 people came to view the exhibit of unseen images. 

In October 2008, photographer Herman Leonard was honored with a Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Portraiture. The Herman Leonard Jazz Archive was established in 2007, and in 2008 was awarded a Grammy Foundation Grant for Archiving and Preservation. Herman Leonard’s photography goal through the archive 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.