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Herman Leonard, American, (March 6, 1923–August 14, 2010)
Billie Holiday (with Smoke), New York City, 1949
Photographic materials on paper
14 in. x 11 in. (35.56 cm x 27.94 cm)

Object Type: Photography
Technique: Photography
Credit Line: Purchase, Scripps Collectors' Circle
Accession Number: 2012.2.9

Herman Leonard’s New York Times obituary described his photography as “noirish,” a reference to the film style that dominated 1940s Hollywood, where movies like Double Indemnity and The Third Man showed killers and robbers in thick and murky shadows. Applying Hollywood’s most paranoid style to jazz icons of his day was no accident: jazz had danger to it. Jazz was seen as such a moral threat that some cities established programs to promote classical music in order to persuade jazz fans away from a music associated with pot and binge-drinking. Billie Holiday (1915—1959), surrounded by smoke, reinforces this image of vice. Yet, a cherub hangs in the right of the frame, and bright light illuminates Holiday mid-performance. In the late 1940s, Holiday was at the height of her fame, though drug and alcohol problems would catch up with her by the 1950s. Leonard used his camera to externalize both Holiday’s success and her struggle with her demons: she is angelic, but also caught in flames of her own making.

David Kuhio Ahia, PO ’18
Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern

Silver gelatin photograph

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