Recently, when autographing a copy of his book Jazz Memories, world-renowned photographer Herman Leonard wrote to the purchaser: "above all enjoy the music." Fans of jazz also appreciate the fact that Leonard masterfully captured the pantheon of great jazz musicians on film for posterity. Whether in print, documentaries or on film, his images appear as memorable companions to the artists and the unique sounds they created.
Unfortunately, 90 percent of Leonard's prints were destroyed when his Lakeview home flooded after Katrina. The jazz negatives, which had been moved to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in preparation for the storm, however, survived unscathed. Leonard's manager of 10 years, Jenny Bagert, arrived at the photographer's home by boat 10 days later to rescue his cats and to check on remaining archives, which had been stored on the second floor.
A photographer since the age of 14, Leonard, now 83, has amassed a huge body of work. In the late 1940s, his passion for jazz brought him from small-town Pennsylvania to the New York clubs of Broadway, 52nd Street and Harlem, where he befriended and photographed such jazz icons as Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. In the years that followed, he apprenticed under the great portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, spent time as Marlon Brando's personal photographer and lived in Paris, where he worked in fashion and advertising and served as the European photographer for Playboy Magazine. It wasn't until the 1980s that Leonard rediscovered his unparalleled collection of jazz photographs, now housed in its entirety, in the Smithsonian's permanent archives of musical history.
The first exhibition of Leonard's jazz photographs was in London in 1988. Two years later, the first local exhibition of his work was held at A Gallery For Fine Photography, and New Orleans gained the privilege of claiming Leonard as one of its own.
"Within five minutes, I said 'I want to live here,'" says Leonard, who moved from San Francisco to New Orleans shortly after his visit. Since then, he has devoted countless hours to documenting, in his own inimitable way, the essence of the city and its natives. Among the notable locals immortalized through his lens are musicians Kermit Ruffins, Dr. John, and Ellis and Wynton Marsalis as well as sculptor Arthur Silverman. Although he currently lives in California, Leonard has reestablished a temporary office in the Crescent City and prints photographs when he visits. Through sales of a Katrina edition of prints, he has been instrumental in raising money for musicians' medical needs. He also is working on a new book, scheduled for publication in October.
"The camera has been my open sesame," says Leonard, who wouldn't change a moment of his life, hurricanes not withstanding, but who does advise young photographers to keep their work well organized and to record all significant information relating to it in case of disasters. "Without the camera, I never would have had these wonderful experiences."
Early one October morning, jeweler Rebecca Raney mustered up the courage to face what was left of her Lakeview home. "We drove out just as the sun was coming up," says Raney, who made the eerie trip with a friend. "It was like driving through a war zone. Everything had a gray pallor, a pallor of death."
Pre-Katrina, the 1950s cottage where Raney and her 14-year-old daughter lived for four years, shone like a little gem. Post-Katrina, the house, which took on 6 feet of water, had a shine of a different kind. The floors were black and slick with muck, the walls covered with mold. The positive side of the floodwaters was that as it moved many fragile belongings inside the house, it also buoyed them and kept them from breaking. A 100-year old art nouveau vase passed down from Raney's grandmother survived without a single chip. When Raney's china cabinet fell face-forward into the water, only two items were broken, a scenario that's been reported over and over by those whose homes were flooded.
Sifting through the wreckage of her home, Raney also salvaged jewelry, primitive masks collected over the years, several pairs of cherished Nocona cowboy boots (restored Post-K by a good cobbler), and a favorite antique chair. Though purchased at a garage sale for just $75, the late 19th century chair is an early recliner made of solid mahogany with lion's-claw feet and a lion's head on each of the armrests. Found in pieces, all of which were recovered, the chair is now being restored.
Raney also managed to save a piece of herself when she rescued some of the colorful, nature-inspired, semi-abstract canvases she's painted over the last 25 years. After carefully drying the paintings -- which depict things like peppers and lizards -- in the sun, she gently cleaned each to remove the mold that resulted from weeks of water. "It's hard to see everything you own covered in mud and to have to throw all those treasures out," says Raney, who now lives Uptown while assessing whether to rebuild and replacing necessities like furniture. Her mantra for future acquisitions: "Keep it simple and minimal."
Billy and Jane Sizeler Over the course of 15 years, architect Billy Sizeler, president of Sizeler Architects, purchased 23 pieces of Newcomb Pottery -- the highly collectible pottery produced by students of Sophie Newcomb College between 1895 and 1940 -- and gave them to his wife as gifts. In the course of a single day, Aug. 30, 2005, when waters from Lake Pontchartrain inundated most of New Orleans, the Sizelers thought they'd probably lost not only the pottery but everything else on the first floor of their Uptown home.
A month later, Billy returned to survey the damage and remove what he could from the soggy scene. "The first thing I asked him to save was our wedding album," says Jane, who happily reports that her wedding photographs and many other pictures in their albums survived although they had been underwater. The couple's Newcomb Pottery also survived. Billy found all except two pieces on his first trip to the house. He found the remaining two pieces, which had floated into another room and landed one inside the other, a week later. Every piece was intact; only one saucer has a tiny nick, damage the Sizelers say may have occurred during their recent move to a new home.
Though no two pieces of the hand-decorated pottery are alike, the Sizelers' collection includes some rare finds, among them, a high-glaze tyg, or three-handled vessel, and a high-glaze lemonade pitcher with a set of six matching cups and saucers -- all made before 1910. It also includes later pieces decorated with the motifs of an oak tree, moon and Spanish moss, which are particularly beloved by locals.
Sadly, one of Jane's favorite possessions, a life-size dollhouse given to her by her grandfather, was flooded beyond repair. Unlike the pottery, which required only washing with soap and water, the couple's 19th century dining table, originally from Natchez, Miss., must be professionally restored. Yet the Sizelers, like many brave New Orleanians, who have been parted with some or all of their worldly goods, consider themselves fortunate. "We're lucky we're fine," says Jane. Adds Billy, whose design team is working on a renovation of the Superdome, "All we lost was stuff, and stuff can be replaced."
- Cheryl Gerber
- Photographic memories -- Twenty years of valuable prints were destroyed when Herman Leonard's Lakeview home of 14 years flooded. Luckily, his jazz negatives had been removed to the Ogden Museum Of Southern Art for safekeeping in preparation for the hurricane.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Gray matter -- Most of Rebecca Raney's belongings were covered with mold and mud after Katrina and the subsequent flooding in Lakeview. Paintings she created herself were among the sodden things she cleaned and saved.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Pots of luck -- Billy and Jane Sizeler recovered every piece of their Newcomb Pottery unharmed after the storm including two that floated into another room and landed one inside the other. The glass light fixture over the table and chairs also was saved from their flooded home. The couple bought it in the 1960s, when Billy was in architecture school in Philadelphia.