In The Moment

This appeared in Fetch - August 19, 2010

One of the pieces on Fetch this week is a remembrance of Herman Leonard, the great photographer who died last Saturday at 87. In it, Samantha Richter, who was both Leonard’s friend and dealer, had this to say: “He lived and loved every minute of every day, and like the music he loved so much, he was always in the moment.”

While we’re throwing the word “love” around so freely, I have to say, I love that quote. Leonard clearly lived in the moment—he decided to move to New Orleans almost immediately after he arrived for an opening of his show there—and his pictures capture amazing moments that the rest of us would otherwise never have gotten to share. David Houston, chief curator and co-director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art who collaborated with Leonard on Jazz, Giants, and Journeys, The Photography of Herman Leonard, said, “You could teach the personal and musical evolution of jazz through his work.”

It’s true. He was able to capture his subjects without artifice because he had become of their world. They trusted him and were used to his constant presence, so that Billy Holliday, fresh from jail and frying up a steak for her dog, for example, didn’t mind at all that Leonard was in her kitchen snapping away.

So much of what Leonard captured so “up close and personal” gives us rare insights into the human condition and the nature of art and artists, a subject that has been on my mind a lot lately. Two weeks to the day before Leonard’s death, the Ogden (where I’m board chair) opened a remarkable show that included Marty Stuart’s photographs of country legends. Marty is a virtuoso musician whose talents were on full display at the concert the night before the museum show. But two years after he went on the road at 13 with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, he was also smart enough to pick up a Nikon and document the extraordinary array of musicians he was lucky enough to know and to play with through the years. The results are much like Leonard’s—there’s a haunting portrait of Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis flipping someone off, Johnny Cash cracking Ray Charles up. My husband said Stuart’s stunning portrait of Cash—the last before he died—reminded him of an American eagle. Every single moment of Cash’s own life was distilled in that iconic, but ultimately very human, face.

When he was in New Orleans for the show, Stuart told me that Eudora Welty was his favorite photographer, and I’m not surprised. As it happened, the Ogden hosted a Welty weekend of sorts the week after Stuart’s show opened. On a panel the same day that Herman Leonard died (though we didn’t yet know it), David Houston talked about Welty’s work as a photographer for twenty-some-odd years, first working for the WPA in her native South. The portraits and scenes of every day life in rural Mississippi are every bit as vivid and knowing as her prose. Houston said that with her typical modesty she always referred to her work as “snapshots,” but he also pointed out that the term is not a bad thing. In the introduction to a book of Welty’s photos, Reynolds Price writes that “the word does define both the frozen moment she always sought and the absence of any trace of pretension to studied art.” The same could be said of Leonard and Stuart.

All three were/are above all witnesses and they have all given us extraordinary gifts—windows into times and places that great fiction, and, indeed, great music, can also provide. But you don’t have to be an artist to learn a lot from their passion for the moment. Few of us reside there anymore, what with jammed voicemail and email queues and the persistent call to the next thing. We’d do better to remember what Samantha Richter reminds us about her dear friend Leonard, “who lived and loved every minute of every day.” That’s precisely why he could share so many so movingly with the rest of us.

By Julia Reed

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