NOTE: A special "guest post" today from Jonathon H, archive editor at Getty Images! As Jonathon has worked with the photographs by master celebrity photographer Earl Leaf for quite a while, he took slight offense at my tongue-in-cheek post on Mr. Leaf on the other blog…so I am MORE than happy to let Jon share these images and write an essay on the artist. I hereby defer, and can't thank Jon enough for the story and the great selection of images he pulled from the vast Getty Archives of Earl Leaf's work. A link to the Getty Archives follows Jonathon's essay and selections...great work by a remarkable man, and much appreciated!
Born in 1905 in Seattle and raised in San Francisco Earl Leaf spent many years finding his calling. By 1936 he was the North China manager of the United Press Associations (later known as UPI) covering the Sino-Japanese war. Before that he was a cowboy, sailor, prospector, dude rancher, harvest hand, actor, teamster, bookkeeper, Salvation Army cadet, guitar player in a Hawaiian trio in a Panama cabaret, member of the Nevada state legislature, and a journalist on the road covering unemployed migrants for the Reno Journal.
During his time covering the war in China he was the only western journalist to interview and photograph Mao and his comrades behind communist lines in 1938.
By 1940 he was back in the US (in New York) and was appointed as an advisor to Chinese government’s Central Publicity Board, and was basically China’s PR man in America.
During the war Earl served with the OSS a precursor to the CIA but there is little or no documentation as to what he did for them.
After the war Earl decided that he would be both a photographer and a journalist and spent time after the war in New York shooting the city and taking assignments to shoot artists like Martha Graham and then on to France to record life there after the war.
By 1949 Earl had picked up and moved back to the West Coast arriving in Hollywood in the summer of that year. By the Fall earl had his first Hollywood celebrity session shooting the actress Cleo Moore at home. While there were many celebrity shooters in Hollywood at that time earl broke new ground by shooting the starlets at home in their bedrooms usually in a skimpy negligee. Press agents took notice and soon he was shooting the B list elites like Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood who were under studio contract but hardly household names. It was Earl’s job to get them into the papers and fan magazines.
By the early 50’s earl was well established on the scene shooting both candid sessions (never in a studio) and out on the town hobnobbing with the cream of Hollywood like Bogart and Bacall, Brando, john Wayne etc. all of them would willingly pose for him and ham it up for the camera. He was welcome everywhere from the Oscars to Ciro’s the Mocambo and the Cocoanut Grove. Unlike almost all of the celebrity photographers of that time Earl not only took the photos but wrote his own stories in the fan magazines and had several syndicated columns.
During this time Earl also shot for the “girlie” magazines between assignments with the stars, mostly shooting fully clothed but sexy sessions of wannabe starlets roaming around Hollywood. Some of those starlets went on to fame and fortune in other fields like the luscious Joan Bradshaw who became an A list Hollywood producer in the 1980’s.
He also shot semi nude and nude sessions but these were not his main focus. For his men’s magazine persona Earl created a lascivious, boorish beatnik character that in today’s world is way over the top but he was beloved by his models and celebrities alike. He was the favourite of stars like Debbie Reynolds, Kim Novak and Jayne Mansfield.
During the 50’s he shot many musicians such as Elvis and Ricky Nelson but mainly because they were TV and movie stars but by the early 60’s earl had moved his focus to the burgeoning music scene both home grown and the British invasion. If they had a hit and were in Los Angeles Earl shot them. the Beatles, Stones, The Kinks, Hendrix, Joplin, Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, an incredibly young David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen and The Doors when they were the house band at the Whisky wearing suits and ties. And of course the Beach Boys. Earl was their main photographer and shot many of the iconic images of them and they even had a track called ‘Bull Session With "Big Daddy"’ written about Earl.
He slowed down in the 70’s and by 1980 at the age of 75 he was dead. Judging by his basic diet of coffee and cigarettes he had a pretty long life and it was certainly eventful.
The Getty Archives is HERE
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