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Jack Leigh: Nov. 8, 1948-May 19, 2004

Lex Jenkins , Jun 20, 2004; 10:30 a.m.

Southern photographer Jack Leigh, perhaps best known for his photograph of the "Bird Girl" statue on the cover of the novel "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", died of cancer May 19, last month, in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.

Coincidentally, I was visiting my mom in Savannah at the time while she was recovering from back surgery. Sadly, I didn't have an opportunity to visit Mr. Leigh's gallery in the Historic District during my visit, tho' I did peek through the windows en route to my bus stop a couple of nights.

I've written to the director of the gallery asking for technical information about Mr. Leigh's materials, darkroom techniques, etc. While there's plenty of information available about his books (five volumes of photographic essays on various themes in the Deep South) and some biographical information, I could find nothing on the web about his preferences for film formats, film, etc. I thought this should be remedied and hope that someone from the gallery will respond with information that can be preserved on photo.net's archives.

As soon as I hear something I'll update this thread, so be sure to click on the "New Answers" option toward the top of the forum page for updates to this and other threads.

And if anyone else out there has reliable information pertinent to this thread, please add it.

I can only guess, from looking at some prints through the gallery window, that Mr. Leigh at least sometimes worked in 35mm or medium format, judging from the slight grain apparent on the enlargements (which appeared to be up to 16x20 in size).

And, if you've seen the "Bird Girl" photo, a halo effect from dodging around the statue is obvious. While Mr. Leigh admitted this photo always gave him problems during printing, I would guess that the halo effect appealed to almost everyone who saw or bought the photo - except for we ruthlessly critical photographers! I'm not surprised he had difficulties with the photo - it was taken in Bonaventure Cemetery where the lighting presents serious challenges under the best of conditions, and Jack was given only 30 minutes to make the shot after the cemetery was closed in the evening.

Leigh's effort to arrange a cooperative working arrangement with Warner Brothers when they decided to make a movie of "Midnight..." was rejected. When the movie used a copy of the "Bird Girl" statue in a similar setting for the closing credits, Leigh sued and an undisclosed settlement was reached after several years. While he was known as a genuinely nice guy, he aggressively pursued copyright violations of his once-in-a-lifetime image (even tho' it wasn't generally regarded as one of his best, it was certainly his most famous and a money maker). We all should be so fortunate as to have a photo worth fighting for!

I spent most of an afternoon at Bonaventure Cemetery shooting mostly Provia 100F and I can only hope some of the photos turn out okay (they're at the lab as of this writing). I didn't take a tripod on this trip and was seldom able to use a shutter speed faster than 1/60 with the Provia - and my hands aren't that steady anymore. And, no, I didn't steady myself on anyone's tombstone! To be safe I ran a roll of Tri-X at 400 through my Agfa Isolette folder - should make for a nice change of flavor.

If you'd like to read more about Jack Leigh there are several articles on the web. You should visit his website, www.jackleigh.com and, if you see something you like, visit amazon.com for reviews of his books. He once said during a visit to NYC as a young photographer that he suddenly realized he was out of his element and simply rehashing what others had done. That convinced him to return to his roots in the South, which resulted in work that has honesty and portrays his human subjects with unaffected dignity.

Very encouraging for those of us who don't really like to stray far from home anyway. ;>

Responses

Tonghang Zhou , Jun 20, 2004; 02:49 p.m.

Very nicely written essay.

Ellis Vener , Jun 20, 2004; 04:26 p.m.

When the movie used a copy of the "Bird Girl" statue in a similar setting for the closing credits, Leigh sued and an undisclosed settlement was reached after several years. Lex,

I am sorry to hear that he passed away at such a young age. As i recall Mr. Leigh lost his copyight infringement suit against Time-Warner and as I recall he lost the appeal as well. I hope I am wrong about this but I'm pretty sure I am not. Same idea but different statue, different light, different setting. One of those cases where you can copyright the execution of an idea but not the idea itself.

Kevin Bourque , Jun 20, 2004; 05:15 p.m.

I saw one of his shows here in Charleston some years back. He had a good eye and was a fine printer. So sad to hear that he's passed.

http://www.jackleigh.com/

Lex Jenkins , Jun 21, 2004; 02:02 a.m.

Ellis, I also had read that his appeal had been rejected. However, according to reports I've read on the web, he persisted and finally received a settlement in, I think, 1999. He took the photo in 1993 which first appeared along with the 1994 publication of "Midnight..." The movie came out in 1997. So it took a little time, patience and supportive lawyers to get it done.

He also pursued copyright infringement suits against Savannahian traders in the tourist market that bloomed around the notoriety of the book and movie. Attempts were made to sell t-shirts, coffee mugs, even refrigerator magnets bearing his "Bird Girl" photo, so he had to be continually on his toes. Being a small town, tho', it wouldn't have been long before word about copyright infringements reached him. His gallery is easy walking distance from the River Walk and general area where tourists shop among the often-hokey gift shops.

However, other references to either the "Bird Girl" statue or book/movie title appeared regularly and probably couldn't be considered copyright infringements of Leigh's photo. "Bird Girl" replica statues of all sizes can be seen in yards all over Savannah. Some of them aren't very good replicas. The worst are the necklace pendants which have a shapeless blob that sort of resembles the statue. And t-shirts bearing the title of the book and movie are worn by employees at Clary's, a restaurant/coffee shop featured in the story. (Clary's has sadly declined since changing ownership and the shop located south of downtown on Habersham's is now an overpriced, too precious little parlor with mediocre food and indifferent service.)

The original statue was removed by the family on whose plot it was located in Bonaventure Cemetery. They quickly tired of tourists stomping all over the graves, posing with their arms draped across the statue, grinning moronically for a snapshot. The statue was removed by the family within a few months after the book was published and was not available for public display for several years. It's now located in the Telfair Museum where I hope it will receive a permanent home. It's a lovely thing, just as quirkily sad and charming in person as it appears in the photo. (Reportedly, the sculptress cast only two more of the statues, which are located elsewhere in the U.S. However I've read at least one report of questionable veracity that she may have cast four or five statues.)

The statue remains jealously guarded at the Telfair. No photos are permitted and if you get too close or linger too long a guard will sidle up to the nearby doorway and try to convince you that he's not scrutinizing you from the corner of his eye. Understandable. They don't want the statue discolored by people who can't keep their mitts off it, as occurred with the statue at Bonaventure Cemetery of little Gracie Watson whose head was blackened by countless hands pawing over it until it finally had to be surrounded by an iron fence.

You can still find the former spot of the "Bird Girl" statue at Bonaventure, but it's not easy. The site looks almost nothing as it did in the photo. Shrubs have been planted since Jack Leigh took the photo, altering the appearance considerably. The family name of the plot isn't publicized and wasn't mentioned in the book or movie. Out of respect for the family few guides will give you any hints. Even the map available at the Bonaventure visitor's center doesn't mention the site, altho' it does identify the sites for Johnny Mercer (prolific lyricist, including "Moon River") and other local celebrities. I did locate and photograph the site but, frankly, without the statue it's nothing special any longer. However Bonaventure is an old world type cemetery bearing strong European influences and has many other beautiful monuments. As the saying goes, they don't make 'em like this any more.

Appropriately, Jack Leigh is now interred there.

For the curious, Jim Williams, the protagonist of "Midnight..." is not buried at Bonaventure. According to a fellow I spoke with at the visitor's center, Williams' body was taken to Atlanta. And I couldn't get a straight answer about the burial site of the young man Williams killed. Two different names were used for the young man (played by Jude Law in the movie), one by author John Berendt, another in the movie. And since Berendt admitted to having used pseudonyms for some otherwise real characters in his novel, I suspect the young man killed by Williams was one of them. A little research in the local newspaper's files would clear it up but I didn't have time for that. (Besides, after reading Minerva's warnings, I'm not sure I'd want to get too close to that particular grave.)

Ah, there's something about Savannah that makes me ramble on. I lived there for a while as a kid and the place was very run down at the time - full renewal of the Historic District hadn't yet been completed. I'd be interested in living there if I could figure out a way to make a living. It has a very limited economic base compared with the Dallas/Fort Worth area where I now live. But it's certainly picturesque.

Bert Krages , Jun 21, 2004; 10:51 a.m.

With regard to the copyright infringement suit against Warner Bros., Jack Leigh did prevail on appeal with regard to the promotional photographs used by Warner Bros. The court held that the film sequences used in the movie did not infringe since the visual elements were dissimilar and that Warner Bros. was free to associate the statute with the movie. However, the visual elements in the promotional photograph were similar and the court remanded the case to determine whether Warner Bros. in fact intended to make a substantive copy of Leigh's photograph. It is at that point the settlement was reached.

Lex Jenkins , Jul 01, 2004; 05:32 p.m.

Update

I just received some e-mails from Erica Riccardelli and Ben Beasley of the Jack Leigh Gallery. I'm very grateful to them both for their replies and, especially, for correcting the mistakes in my earlier posts.

First, I'll reprint Erica's e-mail verbatim (with her consent) as I can't improve on her reply, part of which includes quotes from one of Jack Leigh's books:

=========================

"Jack always used tri-x film. He processed his film in D-76. His early work was shot with a 35mm camera. Occasionally he used a 4x5, but typically preferred to use his Bronica 645. He printed on Ilford Multigrade fiber base paper and processed his paper in Ilford Bromophen.

"In his retrospective, The Land I'm Bound To, he states:

'I have worked with a variety of cameras over the years depending on the nature of the subject and environment. Early on I worked exclusively with 35mm cameras and shot everything handheld as I was generally jumping in and out of boats, wading through swamps and sloughing knee-deep across mudflats.

'Later I switched to a medium format camera that not only allowed me the same versatility as 35mm, but actually gave me more stability due to its larger size and weight. The larger negative resulted in greater clarity of the image. I normally use wide-angle lenses, preferring the intimacy and scope they afford.

'For certain subjects I still enjoy the ritual of the view camera. On occasion, setting up the 4x5 camera in the streets of a small Southern town would attract a great deal of attention. I would often give curious onlookers a chance to duck under the dark cloth and see their world on my ground glass.'"

=========================

Ben added that what I described as a "halo effect" around the Bird Girl statue in the photo used on the book cover was a very deliberate choice by Jack and an essential part of his personal interpretation of the image:

"When Jack spoke at many lectures including the Telfair Museum about printing the image he spoke of it as conducting a symphony which included over 100 passes of light to create the desired effect. He was a master printer and very specific as to the look he wanted to achieve. Also, he had two full nights in Boneventure cemetery to shoot the image. The guard would leave him keys to get in and out after hours. It was shot on his last night there nearing dusk."

I thank Ben for clearing up any misconception I might have had or passed along that this effect was anything other than a deliberate artistic choice, just as the prints of Michael Kenna and Rolfe Horn often show a very distinctive darkening of the corners and edges to focus attention on the center on their photos.

Speaking of Leigh, Kenna and Horn, it's interesting to note that all three have, at least during part of their artistic careers, used pretty much the same materials yet achieved very individualistic results. Frequently medium format cameras, Tri-X, D-76, Ilford Multigrade fiber paper...

While I wouldn't want to discourage anyone here from experimentation or seeking out the materials that produce results that inspire them, we should also keep in mind that cameras, film, paper and developers don't make great photographs by themselves.

B. Tipton , Sep 11, 2009; 10:33 p.m.

I know this is an old thread, I recently came across it. I was able to do a workshop with Mr. Leigh prior to his sickness and during his workshop he took us into his darkroom and made a print for each participant from a negative each of us brought in. He also made prints of the Bird Girl image while we watched. As participants in the workshop we had the opportunity to purchase the prints of the Bird Girl image he made during the workshop. I had used all the money I had to get into the workshop and I couldn't afford the purchase price of the print, to this day I regret that. I must say the cost of the workshop was extremely reasonable and the price of the prints was extremely reasonable as well, I just didn't have the money. Mr. Leigh had a genuine interest in getting people enthused with photography and he encouraged us the document our lives and surroundings. He used Tri-X pan almost exclusively and mentioned he was playing around with Tmax 3200 and had high hopes for its possibilities. The prints made during the workshop were on Ilford paper with Ilford print developer, I believe it was Multigrade. The print he made from my negative was on fiber paper and if I remember correctly he used an Omega D5 condenser enlarger. Looking at the images Mr. Leigh produced I can see it's evident he was influenced by Walker Evans early in his career, later on his images became more his own. I would encourage anyone interested in documentary photography to acquire Mr. Leigh's books and images.

Lex Jenkins , Sep 12, 2009; 02:21 a.m.

Thanks for adding to this thread. Very interesting to hear someone else's personal experiences.

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