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Giving Voice to Women Artists Through Photography

By Victoria Santamorena 

Dinah Washington, Newport Jazz Fest, 1955 (DNW06) © Herman Leonard Photography, LLC.

As Black History Month segues into a celebration of Women’s History Month, the Bruce Museum is pleased to share a trio of treasures from its permanent collection: striking photographs of Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington, taken by renowned jazz photographer Herman Leonard. The collection of Leonard photographs was donated to the Bruce Museum in 2004.

The 2018 theme for Women’s History Month is “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”  It’s an effort supported at the grass-roots level by activities and programs at local schools and by recognition from the nation’s leading institutions, including the Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, and Smithsonian Institution. The National Museum of Women in the Arts takes part through its popular social media campaign, #5WomenArtists, which aims to increase awareness of gender inequality in the art world, while simultaneously focusing on the stories and work of women artists of color who face dual discrimination based on gender and race.

Racism, poverty, depression. These were the obstacles that female artists Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington had to overcome, and those experiences enhanced, challenged, and influenced their art. Undeterred by the restrictions of gender and race, these women created powerful legacies through their music. Through her voice, Lena Horne paved the way for other black performers as a champion for civil rights and equal treatment in Hollywood. Ella Fitzgerald inspired young black musicians, using her voice to overcome poverty and loss. Through her songs, Dinah Washington allowed the world an intimate view into her troubled soul, while her vivacious personality demanded respect and equality.  Images of these women, captured by Herman Leonard, demonstrate their persistence in the face of social challenges.

Herman Leonard studied under the famed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, who taught him to capture the humanity and beauty of his subjects. Leonard learned that his camera allowed him access to people and places that his naturally shy demeanor would have prevented. His love of jazz, of improvisation, and his desire to connect with the musicians led him to the jazz and swing clubs of New York. Photographing jazz musicians and singers was Leonard’s way of capturing “the mood and atmosphere of the moment.” He wanted to “make people see the way the music sounded.” With his camera as a ticket into these clubs, Leonard photographed the jazz greats. His insightful, soulful, and humanizing photographs of these legends showed more than just the beauty of these musicians; they also prove that great photographs have the ability to feel and see the music.

Ella Fitzgerald, NYC, 1949
(ELF01)  © Herman Leonard Photography, LLC.

Leonard’s photographs do not solely represent his art. The photographs of jazz artists Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Dinah Washington, captured either mid-song, or comfortably posed, display the emotions, the creativity, and the beauty of these women expressing themselves through song. In the photographs of Dinah Washington, her body becomes an instrument, a canvas for a feeling. We cannot hear the sound of her voice, but we can feel the emotion conveyed by her face and her body, which is essential to her art. The photographs are a representation of Washington’s voice, a representation she shared, artist to artist. Leonard worked to capture what he heard and saw, and Washington worked to physically portray what she felt. The photographs are a mutual exchange between two artists, a physical and emotional collaboration.

His photographs of Ella Fitzgerald are much the same. She uses her body and her voice to create a mood and tell a story. Each moment, each heart-felt note is immortalized on film. Their collaboration does not give us the sound of Fitzgerald’s music, but it does evoke her emotions. It is still pure expression.

The artistry of these women lies in more than just their voices. While their performances were soulful, powerful, and based in raw expression, the image of these women – the way they represented themselves – is part of their art. Leonard’s photographs of Lena Horne are proof. She isn’t singing or performing in these pictures, but she does use her body and her face to tell a story and to represent herself. Her smile and clasped hands portray the youth and vigor of her personality. She looks hopeful and candid. She expresses her emotions clearly and Leonard captures that with humanity and grace. Horne’s portrait is also an equal exchange of artistry, for she put forth the emotions and challenged Leonard to capture them with style.

Lena Horne, NYC, 1948  © Herman Leonard Photography, LLC.

A memorable photograph can be a happy accident, but the best photographers are always on the lookout for the perfect moment to capture an image. Photography requires creativity and imagination to see and represent the world with emotionality. Photographers don’t merely reproduce images of the world around them; they create perceptions about that world, they capture fleeting moments and immortalize them with truth.

These portraits are just one of the many ways in which the music of Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington are kept alive. Seeing these women artists, either feeling the music or being themselves, allows us to be present in that moment. Viewing these photographs, we can almost hear their voices, which is how we experience their art. Through the art of photography, we partake in the legacy and the art of these iconic women.

Want to help advocate for women artists? Starting March 1, take the challenge and post about #5WomenArtists on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, and tag @WomenInTheArts. Follow along with the month’s highlights on NMWA’s Women’s History Month webpage.

Victoria Santamorena is a 2017 graduate of Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. She is currently an intern in Archives and Collections Management at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT.