FROM PHOTOGRAPHY TO POLITICS

Louis Armstrong is just sitting on a stool, wiping his mouth with a handkerchief. There's a cigarette in his hand and a bottle of Taittinger on the table but the man is drinking beer.

By Robert Flemming (Staff Reporter)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 17 Mar 2006, 12:27 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 4:46 PM

There is a wearied look on his face that matches the rough grey brick walls but Louis is dressed as natty as they come.

Just one of the many photographs that Herman Leonard took between 1948 and 1960 of the jazz clubs and the musicians who inhabited those dark and smoky places.

"I loved the jazz and I loved photography and taking photographs was a way of getting into the clubs. Back then I used a 4x5 Speed Graphic news camera because it was the only one that I had." (You can hear the grin on his face as Herman's gravel ground voice rolls down the phonelines from distant Los Angeles.) "It wasn't as manoeuvrable as the cameras these days but it forced you to be careful about what you shot. It disciplined you so that you took care before you pressed the button."

Herman left his home in Pennsylvania at 16 but it was a while before he reached the streets and clubs of New Orleans.

The evocative jazz images for which he is best known brought in little money and the youthful Leonard backed it up doing fashion, reportage, advertising and anything else that appeared before his lens.

In 1956 he worked for Marlon Brando as his personal photographer; a period that took him out to the Far East where he fell in love with the region.

For 10 years he was a stringer and then European Correspondent for Hugh Hefner's magazines.

And Herman's photographic travels have taken him to places like Iran, Afghanistan, India and Turkey.

With two books published on jazz photography, only now at the age of 83 is he publishing a book containing some of his other images.

"I see pictures everywhere. I look down at the sidewalk and see a pile of trash and see the patterns there. If there's a pretty girl, I'll take her. And the masses of clouds, they fascinate me. I want to record the beauty of life and just continue to do that. I'm not concerned about being remembered. I want to continue to enjoy life and my children. I couldn't care less about the public!"

When Katrina hit New Orleans, Herman lost 95 per cent of the thousands of prints that lay in the drawers of units on the ground floor of his three-storey house.

Fortunately the negatives were saved.

"I printed everything myself; that was one of the great joys. We were warned about the severity of the storm. We left about 12 hours before the hurricane hit. But it wasn't the storm that caused the damage, it was the levees breaking and the water from Lake Ponchartrain. I live in the Lake View area to the north of the city close to where the 17th Street levee broke. The house was under 10 feet of water."

"You have to be on the ground to understand how devastating it was and the extent of the damage. The newsreels and TV reports don't even come close. The wealthier people got out and they were protected but the poor people had no insurance and no money. It's completely changed the ethnic balance of the city which used to be 65 per cent black people; now its 65 per cent whites. The quality has gone from New Orleans. It used to be so welcoming and tolerant and it didn't matter if you were a millionaire or a pauper. That's changed."

"I am concerned about the situation in the world today. We're gripped in a battle between cultures and societies that has become dangerous. The American approach in particular. I've lived through the times of presidents since Roosevelt and Bush is the most dangerous we've ever had. If I had him in front of me now, I'd punch him right in the mouth."

You may not be able to talk to the man but you have to see his pictures at Gallery One in the Souk Madinat.



More news from