Lee Tanner

Lee Tanner

2010 Honoree: Achievement in Documentary



Born in New York City in 1931 LEE TANNER entered a family ripe with artistic creativity.  His father was a portrait painter and illustrator and many of his paintings were used by movie studios of the time as their posters. There was the constancy of music as well. Classical and jazz on the radio at home, and in theaters and concert halls were available to him from an early age.  He became enthralled with Jazz.  Lee also discovered photography in the pages of Life and Look Magazines which were filled with magnificent black and white images.  It was in 1943 that he saw an article by Gion Mili documenting a jazz jam session in his studio.  Several years later he was greatly impressed by Herman Leonard’s prints on the walls of a Manhattan jazz club.  These were the primary stimuli leading to a lifetime of photographing the events and the musicians of the music he adored.  By 1945 he obtained his first camera.  He poured through photography magazines and was captured by the images using available-light techniques pioneered by several French photographers such as Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau.  Tanner proceeded to teach himself how to master the work of taking pictures, processing film and printing the images.  Some of these techniques often required manipulations going beyond the stated capabilities of the materials in order to get a satisfactory image.

Simutaneously, while attending Stuyvestant High School he became very interested in science; upon graduation in 1949 he enrolled in New York University.  After receiving a Bachelors Degree in Engineering with a specialty in Metallurgy in 1953, his draft number came up.  He entered the U.S. Army and spent the next two years at Fort Belvoir, Virginia in the Engineer Research and Development Laboratory.  Returning to civilian life in 1955 he entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania with the aid of the GI Bill and an Academic Fellowship.  Tanner received a Masters Degree in Metallurgy and Materials Science in 1958.  It was during this period of time in Philadelphia that Tanner began his dedicated photography  of the jazz scene at the local music night clubs.

In 1958, Lee Tanner, now married, started his lifelong career as a materials scientist studying the structure and behavior of metals and metallic alloys using a high resolution electron microscope.  His research took place at Laboratories in Chicago, Boston and  Berkeley.  At every opportunity of free time, he continued to photograph the jazz scene.  While in Boston he produced a weekly live television program, “Mixed Bag” at the PBS station WGBH presenting the musical groups that were performing locally.  In each of the cities he displayed his prints on the walls of the nightclubs and also in the galleries at the Jazz Festivals in Newport, San Francisco, and Monterey.  Frustrated that established photo galleries were not interested in showing the photography of jazz he found several venues where he could present exhibits by himself.  He used prints of several other photographers as well as his own in San Francisco, Portland, and New York City.

Tanner has published four books.  The first entitled “Dizzy” (Pomegranate Press, 1994) is a celebration of trumpeter and composer John Birks Gillespie’s 75th year.  Lee published his own work in “Images of Jazz” (Friedman-Fairfax 1996).

“Images of the Blues” (Friedman-Fairfax 1998) included the work of several other artists and his own.  The most recent book, “The Jazz Image…Masters of Jazz Photography”, (Abrams Inc. 2006) is an anthology of photographs by twenty seven artists.  In 2006 Lee received the Excellence in Photography Award from the Jazz Journalists Association. Throughout Tanner’s scientific and photographic careers, he has been known as a tireless mentor encouraging students of the craft to explore, educate and expand their passions into fully realized careers.  His most important to date would have to be his daughter Lisa, who began in the darkroom as a child with Dad and has created her own significant photographic career.

Tanner is now retired from his scientific career.  He was honored for his research accomplishments with an award from the U.S. Department of Energy.  He resides in Sonora, CA in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains with his wife Linda and is close to several children and grandchildren.  He enjoys the weather, the scenery, his kids and listens to his favorite jazz recordings and provides prints when they are requested.

Purchase an iconic image by Lee Tanner through Lucie Editions here.