When it came time to find a commencement speaker, a group of seniors recommended President Roderick J. McDavis consider some important characteristics. The students wanted someone with energy and charisma, someone who understood what it meant to be an Ohio University graduate.
This year, that person was Herman Leonard, a 1947 Ohio University alumnus and world-renowned photographer whose images captured the history and movement of jazz. Leonard spoke at two undergraduate commencement ceremonies Saturday, June 13, in the Convocation Center.
"Herman is an incredibly accomplished person, and his career speaks to the unique qualities that define an Ohio University graduate," McDavis said. "He was on the forefront of chronicling a new movement that has defined our social history."
During the course of his career, Leonard photographed and befriended some of the greatest jazz musicians of the era, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.
In the foreword of Leonard’s third book, "Jazz, Giants, and Journeys: The Photography of Herman Leonard," published in 2006, producer and composer Quincy Jones wrote, "When people think of jazz, their mental picture is likely one of Herman's."
Leonard has received numerous national accolades for his work, including the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Downbeat magazine and the Lucie Achievement in Portraiture Award.
Sixty-two of Leonard's photographs are part of the Ohio University Kennedy Museum of Art's permanent collection; a selection of those images follows.
Kenton, Stan. Atlanta, 1950
Holiday, Billie. New York, 1949
Rich, Buddy. New York, 1954
Gillespie, Dizzy. Paris, 1991
Charlie Parker &
The Metronome All Stars.
New York, 1949
Jones, Quincy. Paris, 1955
A native of Allentown, Pa., Leonard chose Ohio University because it was the only university he knew of that offered a photography degree at that time. And, of course, he saw it with a photographer's eye.
"The first thing that comes to my mind (when thinking of Ohio University) was the early morning fog that enveloped the campus and cast beams of light from the early morning sun, which made for very dramatic photos," Leonard says.
In 1943, Leonard's college studies were interrupted for two years, while he served with the U.S. Army in Burma. He later returned to Ohio University and earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1947.
After graduation, he went on to apprentice with Yousuf Karsh, a master portrait photographer whom he assisted in capturing the images of notables such as Albert Einstein, Harry Truman, Martha Graham and Clark Gable.
During his career, Leonard has worked in Paris fashion and advertising, and served as the European photographer for Playboy magazine.
Leonard moved to New Orleans in 1991 to exhibit his work and immerse himself in the city's jazz scene. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home, studio and some 8,000 photographs. Luckily, with help, the negatives were gathered and stored in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Following the hurricane, Leonard moved to Studio City, Calif., where he has re-established his life and business.
When he addressed students at commencement, Leonard offered this advice:
"You are the master of your boat. It's up to you to decide what you want to do, where you want to go and what you want to be. Don't let anybody else tell you differently. ... The circumstances will always be there. It's up to you to handle them and bring them to your own betterment, and not succumb to them. If you keep remembering that, you'll overcome an awful lot of difficulties."
During the ceremony, Leonard was presented with an honorary doctoral degree in fine arts, in recognition of his distinguished career.
The interview presented here was recorded during his spring visit for commencement.