Born and raised in Allentown, PA in 1923, at age 9, Herman Leonard witnessed an image being developed in his brothers darkroom and became enthralled with the magic of photography. As the official photographer for his high school, Herman quickly learned that with a camera in hand, he had an open sesame to people and events, that his shyness might have prevented him from experiencing. When it came time for college, Herman chose Ohio University in Athens, the only university at the time to offer a degree in Photography. His college studies were interrupted from 1943-1945 as Herman served with the United States Army in Burma with the 13th Mountain Medical Battalion as an anesthetist. Herman returned to college and graduated in 1947 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree.
Hermans most influential teacher was master portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh, to whom Herman was an apprentice in Ottawa, Canada from 1947-1948. Herman assisted Karsh in the darkroom and with sittings including Albert Einstein, Harry Truman, Martha Graham, and Clark Gable.
In 1948, Hermans passion for jazz brought him to New York Citys Greenwich Village, where he established a studio at 220 Sullivan Street and captured the swinging clubs of Broadway, 52nd Street and Harlem. With the camera as his free ticket, he photographed and developed friendships with some of the greats of jazz history including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and many more. In 1956 Leonard was chosen to be Marlon Brando's personal photographer for an extensive research trip to the Far East. In the late 1950's Leonard headed for Paris and continued to photograph the prolific jazz scene, while working in fashion and advertising and serving as the European photographer for Playboy Magazine.
In 1980, Herman moved from Paris to the island of Ibiza, where he remained until 1988. During that time Herman rediscovered his jazz negatives and in 1985 released his first book, The Eye of Jazz, published by Hachette/Filipachi Publications. In 1988, the first exhibition of Hermans jazz photographs was held at the Special Photographers Company in London. Hermans first US show premiered in 1989 and toured nationally.
In 1992, Herman moved to New Orleans and immersed himself in the citys lively jazz scene and exhibited his work around the world in numerous solo shows. In 1995, Herman released his second book, Jazz Memories, published by Editions Filipacchi and in that same year was awarded an Honorary Masters of Science in Photography from The Brooks Institute of Photography. Other awards include the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography," from Jazz Photographers Association in 1999, the "Excellence in Photography Award from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2000 and a "Lifetime Achievement Award from Downbeat Magazine in 2004.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Herman's home and studio. The storm claimed some 8,000 photographs that had been hand printed by Herman, a master printer in his own right. As the storm blew in, Hermans crew gathered the negatives and placed them in the care of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art where they were stored in an upper floor vault. Following Hurricane Katrina, Herman moved to Studio City, California, and re-established his life and business there. In 2006, Herman released his third book, Jazz, Giants, And Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard, published by Scala Publishers, Ltd. In his forward to the book Quincy Jones wrote, When people think of jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Hermans.
Herman's jazz photographs, now collector's items, are a unique record of the jazz scene of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The Smithsonian claims 130 original Herman Leonard photographic prints in its permanent collection, where they are considered as essential to American music history as Benny Goodmans clarinet or Louis Armstrongs horn. Hermans work is also represented in numerous public collections including, Jazz at Lincoln Center, NY, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, LA, and the George Eastman House, NY, as well as the private collections of Sir Elton John, Bruce Bernard and His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.
In October of 2008 Leonard was honored with a Lucie Award for his Lifetime Achievement in Portraiture. In June 2009 Leonard was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree by Ohio University, where he also delivered the 2009 Commencement Address.
The Herman Leonard Jazz Archive was established in 2007 and in 2008 was awarded a Grammy Foundation Grant for Archiving and Preservation. Hermans goal through the archive is to bring his entire jazz collection, comprising a visual documentation of Americas original art form, back to life and preserve it for future generations.