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November 06 2011

Remains of the day

'Martha's home was washed out by Hurricane Katrina. Her gardener was collecting the remains as mementos'

Click on the picture for a larger version of this image

I was working on a project called American Power and wanted to take some pictures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My theme was energy; scientists were making it clear that deadly weather had some relationship to our consumer society. I'm not a photographer who follows the trail of disasters, so I found a way to make work that wouldn't feel voyeuristic or exploitative, through meeting people.

A friend told me about Martha Murphy, who was from Pass Christian, Mississippi. Her ancestral home sat on the Gulf of Mexico and was washed out in its entirety. But she wanted to do something for her community, setting up a big tent and offering free food. I spent a day with her and Charlie Biggs, the family gardener, who was collecting the remains of her home as mementos.

Although it's a situation, the picture was directed. They are positioned on a remaining porch. Like a proscenium theatre, it was a way to have them above ground but sitting among all the articles they were clearly moved by.

There are a lot of references to the burden of very different American histories they carry. He is an African American living in the south, with its history of slavery; she is landed gentry. She is looking up towards him with tremendous affection and reverence; the word love is tattooed on his arm. They both wear jeans, but his are soiled from work, hers are pristine. Sitting at his knee is a golliwog doll; by her a glass art piece.

There is a tension between beauty and terror. Here they are with all the evidence of Katrina, and yet it's a beautiful day by the sea. Nature has no memory of its wrath.

These pictures were taken during the era of George W Bush and Dick Cheney, and a lot of my project was coloured by their ill-thought-through environmental policy. Yet, despite the pervasive sadness of Katrina, we were at this moment of new possibility. As I finished the project we had an African American president. I think this picture ties into that: they were harbingers of change to come.


Born: 1952, Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Education: Cooper Union, NYC.

Influences: "My most pivotal was Garry Winogrand, who I studied with 1972-3."

Top tip: "To have a well-rounded education. Don't think photography on its own is enough."

High point: "Winning the Prix Pictet this spring and being handed the prize by Kofi Annan."

Low point: "There's no low in being an artist." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 17 2010

Herman Leonard obituary

Photographer famed for his jazz images that captured the very essence of the music

The photographer Herman Leonard, who has died aged 87, earned enduring fame for his images of jazz musicians that seemed to embody the very essence of the music. "My whole principle was to capture the mood and atmosphere of the moment," he said. Widely reproduced – there are few books on jazz that do not contain his photographs – they became almost as well known as the music itself. Leonard's shots stand examination as a definitive record of jazz music's greatest period, when mid-century New York was home to its most innovative practitioners.

Leonard's evocations of the jazz life merited that often over-used term "iconic". A typical example – and possibly one of the most celebrated jazz pictures of all time – is his photograph of the bebop tenor-saxophonist Dexter Gordon on the bandstand at the Royal Roost club in New York, staring into space, the smoke of his cigarette curling up behind him. "That smoke was part of the atmosphere and dramatised the photographs a lot, maybe over-stylised them a bit," Leonard said.

Always a fan, he retained an almost starry-eyed delight in what he had achieved. "I took advantage of being a photographer to get myself into the clubs so I could sit in front of Charlie Parker. I got to listen to the music in person," he told the Los Angeles Times, while admitting that had he realised that Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie were to become world-renowned figures, "I would have shot 10 times as many pictures."

His parents were Jewish immigrants from Romania who had arrived in New York in 1912 and then moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Leonard was born. He was the youngest of three children. His father founded a business manufacturing women's foundation garments. Given his first camera by his brother Ira when he was 12, Leonard became his high school's official photographer, taking pictures for the yearbook and immersing himself in every aspect of photographic technique. After graduating in 1940, he enrolled at Ohio University to study photography, eventually gaining a bachelor's degree, although his college course was interrupted by his wartime call-up.

Leonard served in the US army medical corps from 1943 to 1945, not as a military photographer but as an anaesthetist with the 13th Mountain Medical Battalion in Burma. Constantly under fire, he kept his camera with him, developing his pictures at night with chemicals mixed in an army helmet. Jazz, Giants and Journeys (2006), the most complete survey of his lifetime of photography, includes a number of shots from this period.

Leonard completed his degree course in 1947, developing his trademark back-lit style in the college laboratories. He was then apprenticed to the photographer Yousuf Karsh as an unpaid assistant. Helping Karsh with his celebrity sittings gave him insights into lighting techniques and tonal nuance: "Karsh knew how to handle people so as to get what he wanted in the photograph."

Leonard set up his own studio in 1948 in Greenwich Village in New York, selling his jazz shots to magazines and record companies. Painstakingly setting up his pictures and adapting studio lighting techniques to location work, Leonard used his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera to brilliant effect. He was happy to give prints to the musicians and for club owners to use them for advertising purposes. He also began to take on glamour shoots for Playboy magazine. Recruited by Marlon Brando as his personal photographer, Leonard travelled with him to the far east in 1956.

In the first of a series of relocations with his family, Leonard moved to Paris that year and worked for Barclay Records. He photographed Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong on the set of the 1961 movie Paris Blues. He also gained lucrative commissions for advertising, fashion and travel photography.

Having zigzagged from Paris to London and on to Ibiza, Leonard "dropped out" for several years before returning to London in 1988. He was given a solo exhibition at the Special Photographers' Gallery, which 10,000 people visited during its month-long run. His career apparently reborn, Leonard returned to the US and settled in New Orleans. His home and business premises were badly damaged when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, but thousands of his negatives were saved, having been deposited at the city's Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Leonard left the city for California. This painful episode was documented in Leslie Woodhead's film Saving Jazz.

Leonard's photographs have enjoyed a secondary existence as posters, greetings cards and calendars. His work has been collected in a series of four books overseen by the photographer. Leonard, who received many prizes for his work, never seemed to overstate his own importance. He knew his subjects well and they trusted him, allowing him to photograph them in intimate situations. The record producer George Avakian spoke of Leonard as "a wonderful guy. In every respect, he brought happiness to us all."

Leonard married Jacqueline Fauv- reau in 1960. They had a daughter, Valerie, and later separated. He also had a son, Mikael, by Attika Ben-Dirdi, and a daughter, Shana, and a son, David, with his longtime partner Elizabeth Braunlich. He and Elizabeth separated in 1987. Leonard is survived by his children and six grandchildren.

Leslie Woodhead writes: In November 2005, I filmed with Herman Leonard as he went to work in the only surviving darkroom in post-Katrina New Orleans. In the weeks after the hurricane, which had wrecked his home and destroyed thousands of his prints, I watched as the master photographer began to rebuild his archive of jazz images.

For decades I had known and loved Herman's pictures. Now I was able to see him at work. A photograph of the 19-year-old Miles Davis swam up from the developer and Herman teased out the glow in Miles's skin and the detail in a shirt collar. I then worked with Herman on Jazz, a new book of his photographs, to be published in November, including dozens of images retrieved from his archive. I came to know him as a very special man – funny, warm, tirelessly creative. I shall miss him greatly.

• Herman Leonard, photographer, born 6 March 1923; died 14 August 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 14 2010

Disaster-zone architecture

Last month's earthquake in Haiti left two million people homeless. As the colossal reconstruction effort begins, Steve Rose talks to the architects who are transforming disaster zones around the world

Most people witnessing the devastation in Haiti have felt ­powerless to help, but not architects. Since the earthquake on 12 January, some 350 British architects have volunteered their services to ­Article 25, the UK's leading architectural aid charity. There has been a ­similar ­response in the US: design ­charity ­Architecture For Humanity (AFH) had 600 enquiries a day in the week after the disaster. Obviously, there is a­ ­colossal job of reconstruction to be done. Roughly one third of the capital, Port-au-Prince, has been ­destroyed, and some 2 million people have been made homeless.

For now, there are more immediate concerns: treating the wounded, getting in supplies, restoring sanitation, and grieving for the dead. "Now would be exactly the wrong time to pitch up in Haiti," Robin Cross, ­Article 25's director of projects, tells me. "You would simply be another burden on a very strained ­infrastructure." Kate Stohr, co-founder of AFH, agrees. "You don't go in and talk about building new schools when people are grieving. The first reconstruction doesn't typically start for six to nine months, and there will be a period of three to five years where we'll be ­actively working and need volunteers. "

In the broader sense, though, there is plenty that architects can and are ­doing. Natural and man-made disasters have created similar circumstances around the world, where homes, schools, hospitals, and other structures are needed quickly and cheaply. In addition, according to the UN, one in seven people now live in slum ­conditions. One of its millennium ­development goals is to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2015. These are real, urgent problems for architects to solve.

As an example of what could be done in Haiti, Cross points to Article 25's work in northern Pakistan. After the 2005 earthquake destroyed the homes of some 3.5 million people, the charity, in partnership with Muslim Aid, has been building seismic-resistant homes there for those not able to do so themselves. These houses are a variation on a local design, except with a new lightweight structural frame made up of small lengths of timber. They don't look very different from the outside – low, single-storey dwellings rendered in mud and stone – but in the event of another earthquake, they will flex rather than collapse entirely. The houses are also secured to concrete plinths with steel straps, so they are less likely to be shaken off the hillsides, as happened in 2005. It's simple, low-tech stuff, and necessarily so, says Cross. "There is a place for ­innovation, but it's often best to adopt the materials and skills found locally. We've built about 100 houses there so far, but we've also used each one of them as an exercise in training people. It's ­important that when we leave we haven't just left buildings behind – we've also left a community with an increased capacity to rebuild itself."

Much of this architecture has a no-nonsense honesty and stripped down-functionalism that would please the less-is-more forefathers of the modern movement. It also makes much of what we do in the west look frivolous and ­extravagant by comparison. AFH published a book of such projects four years ago, Design Like You Give A Damn; there is now so much of this sort of humanitarian design going on, they are ­working on a sequel. (The same year, AFH also formed, a website where architects can publish their designs for peer review and free use by anyone who sees fit. On its homepage, they have adapted Le Corbusier's famous maxim ­"architecture or revolution": "We don't need to choose between ­architecture or revolution. What we need is an ­architectural revolution."

If this is a revolution, it is one that could only have happened in the information age. AFH was founded in 1999 by Stohr and Cameron Sinclair, two San Francisco-based architects. Witnessing returning refugees in Kosovo, they ­decided to hold an open online design competition for temporary housing and received hundreds of entries from around the world. From there, they spread into work in sub-Saharan Africa, and disaster zones including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami. The organisation now has 80 chapters in 25 countries, and a network of 40,000 professionals. "It's very life-affirming for architects," says Stohr. "On these projects, when you finish, you get a hug from the client."

Another consequence of the ­information age is the emergence of the celebrity-driven development project. In Haiti alone, AFH is now working with Ben Stiller's charity Stiller Strong (motto: "Stealing great ideas from other people's charities to build a school in Haiti"). Stiller founded his ­organisation before the earthquake, and is now roping in friends such as Robert de Niro and Owen Wilson to raise funds. AFH are also working with singer Shakira, whose Barefoot Foundation plans to build schools in Haiti. Haitian-born rapper Wyclef Jean, meanwhile, has his Yéle Foundation, which has been involved in a number of projects, including the construction of a new music studio in Cité Soleil.

The pioneer of the celebrity development field would probably be Brad Pitt and his Make It Right Foundation. The actor, an architecture enthusiast, visited New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina and – frustrated by the slow pace of reconstruction – ­recruited 21 architects to design new houses for the devastated Lower 9th ward, including Frank Gehry, David Adjaye, Thom Mayne and Shigeru Ban. This has resulted in an assortment of funky housing types that are affordable, storm-resistant (they are raised on stilts) and green, with features such as solar panels and rainwater harvesting. Pitt's charity has been criticised, though, for transplanting alien architecture into a context where it wasn't called for. One non-Make It Right resident, of a standard single-storey house, ­complained of feeling "like a Mini Cooper boxed in by SUVs". Just 15 houses have been completed so far, ­although 150 are under construction.

Similar concerns have been raised about the reconstruction of Haiti. "It would be easy to regard this catastrophe as some kind of blank slate on which an architect can come along and define a new masterplan, but you need to treat the subject with much more ­caution," says Cross. "Although the physical infrastructure has been badly destroyed, there are remaining social and economic infrastructures. You need to pick up those threads and build a new Haiti around them."

Architect John McAslan agrees. He returned from Haiti recently, ­having been involved in development work there before the earthquake, particularly on architectural conservation projects. One thing that rarely gets mentioned is Haiti's outstanding ­historic architecture, including its US Victorian-influenced "gingerbread" houses – tall, ornate constructions decked with towers, turrets, balconies. "One of my great fears is that some of the damaged historical buildings that survived will be demolished," says McAslan. "You can't be too concerned about the heritage when there are lives to be saved, but I think one needs to hold onto the past."

Like many practices, McAslan's puts a portion of its resources towards pro bono work around the world. Alongside projects like London's new King's Cross station, the firm has won acclaim for low-tech work such as prototype schools in Malawi, in cooperation with Bill Clinton's development charity. Made of local brick and timber, these smart, simple buildings are designed to optimise natural cooling, harvest rainwater and do without electric lighting – perfect for Malawi's remote villages. McAslan could well be doing similar work in Haiti soon; Clinton's initiative has again enlisted him to help with the ­rebuilding effort.

"What's needed most urgently in Haiti is coordination," says McAslan. "If there isn't any, there's a real danger a lot of effort and good intentions will be wasted." The rainy season is fast approaching, and with it the threat of sanitation-related diseases, not to mention hurricanes. In 2008 alone, Haiti was hit by four hurricanes, and the temporary shelters in which many Haitians now live will not stand up to another one. "We need coordination, we need short-term preparedness for the rainy season, and we need a long-term commitment to reconstruction."

With such pressing survival issues, is it appropriate to be thinking about architectural revolutions or questions of aesthetics? Yes, says Stohr. "Aesthetics are terribly important. Imagine you're a child and you've lost everything and lived in tents for five years. That's half your life. It is actually really important after a disaster to build back beautifully. It brings back a sense of normalcy. When all those beloved landmarks are gone, if you replace them with things that don't have cultural meaning and aren't, frankly, beautiful, you're not ­rebuilding that community." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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