Jean-Pierre Leloir: Photographer celebrated for his pictures of jazz and rock stars of the 1950s and '60s
Monday 28 March 2011
Outside his native France, the veteran photographer Jean-Pierre Leloir was best known for the concert and behind-the-scenes pictures he took of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding when they visited Paris and appeared at the famed Olympia Theatre in 1966 and 1967.
These have featured on countless releases and reissues, been widely published and exhibited and demonstrate Leloir's amazing ability to immortalise performers and to capture candid moments in the dressing rooms and the corridors of the legendary Paris venue.
"I loved the people I photographed, so I made myself as available, yet as discreet as possible," he said. "I never wanted to be a paparazzi. I wanted them to forget my presence so I could catch those little unexpected moments."
In France, Leloir was also celebrated for his many photos of jazz musicians and singers, including a rare picture of Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré and Jacques Brel, the holy trinity of chanson, taken in January 1969.
"It was a real scoop. By sheer luck, I was the only photographer there that day. I never thought the photo would become as famous," he said of the image originally published on the cover of Rock & Folk, the music monthly he helped launch with the journalist Philippe Koechlin in 1966, first as a supplement to Jazz Hot, then as a stand-alone publication.
Born in Paris in 1931, Leloir was passionate about music from his early teens and started taking pictures as a 20-year-old. For publications like Jazz Magazine, L'Express and Le Nouvel Observateur, he photographed many of the jazz musicians who visited Paris or made the French capital their home in the 1950s and '60s, including Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Sydney Bechet, Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus and Lester Young.
He also documented the golden age of chanson and the "yéyé" era and shot memorable studio and concert photographs of Edith Piaf, Johnny Hallyday, and Yves Montand, among many others. He seemed to have a special empathy with visiting blues, rock and soul musicians from the US and the UK and photographed the likes of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa (Leloir's striking black and white portrait of the guitarist in 1976 is included in the Best of Zappa compilation Strictly Commercial). He also covered the Isle of Wight festival in 1969 and the Orange rock festival, a landmark event in France, in 1975.
Leloir also photographed plays and exhibitions, including Jean Vilar's productions for the Théâtre National Populaire. He enjoyed snapping street life in the US and South American cities he visited and the landscapes of the Corrèze area of France where he had a second home.
The mustachioed Leloir smoked a pipe and had the phlegmatic demeanour of a British gentleman. He knew how to put his subjects at ease in the more formal environment of a studio, playing Vivaldi in the background to help Brel relax, for instance. "His moustache is so fascinating that you end up staring at it and forgetting all about the camera," the Belgian singer said of the photographer, who became a lifelong friend and took most of the pictures that adorned the covers of his records. The many books of Leloir's work include Brel Par Leloir (2008), Johnny Sixties, a collection of his Hallyday photos (2009), Instants De Grâce and Portraits Jazz.
In the mid-1990s, Leloir lost the use of his right eye, which restricted his opportunities. Last January, he was made Chevalier de L'Ordre Des Arts et des Lettres and used the occasion to lecture the culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand about the rights of photographers in the digital age. "It was a great honour, the cherry on a beautiful cake," he nevertheless said of the ceremony, where he met up with the American jazz double bassist Ron Carter, whom he had photographed several times, and who was also honoured that day. "That's what I call the lottery of life," Leloir mused about a life that had been full of such coincidences.
Jean-Pierre Leloir, photographer: born Paris 27 June 1931; married (two daughters); died Paris 20 December 2010.
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