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Obituaries

Jack Leigh, 55; Cover Shot Helped Make 'Good and Evil' a Bestseller

June 07, 2004|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Jack Leigh, the photographer whose striking cover image helped make the book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" an international bestseller, has died. He was 55.

Leigh died May 19 of colon cancer at his home in Savannah, Ga., according to Susan Laney, the director of his gallery.

Written by John Berendt, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is the tale of a murder in Savannah set against a cast of characters both fascinating and outrageous. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than four years, and has been published in 24 countries. It was made into a film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. It also became a traveling theatrical production.

One of the most alluring parts of the "Midnight" mystique was the cover photograph: an image of the statue known as the "Bird Girl," which stood in Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery for decades.

A well-known portrait and documentary photographer in Savannah, Leigh was approached by the book's publisher, Random House, to shoot an image for the cover for Berendt's work.

In a recent interview with The Times, Berendt noted that he suggested that the photographer, whose family had lived in Savannah for two centuries, find an image at the Bonaventure Cemetery.

According to Laney, Leigh searched well into the night one day and returned the next. He found the Bird Girl at the last moment on the second day of his search.

Leigh sent just the one image to Random House, Laney said, and the editors there were ecstatic.

Berendt, who had approval rights for the cover image, told The Times that "it was far better than anything I could have ever thought of."

"It was one of the strongest book covers I've ever seen," Berendt told The Times.

The photograph became a Savannah icon and was used on billboards and advertisements that helped fuel the tourist boom resulting from the book's publication.

Bonaventure and the Bird Girl statue became so inundated with tourists that the family who owned the artwork removed it from the cemetery. It is now on long-term loan to the city's Telfair Museum, which has also become a major tourist attraction.

A native of Savannah, Leigh studied fine arts at the University of Georgia but switched to journalism and photography. He lived in Europe after graduating from college but eventually returned to Savannah, where he made a living as a portrait and documentary photographer.

Leigh was the author of five books of photography: "Oystering: A Way of Life"; "The Ogeechee: A River and Its People"; "Nets & Doors: Shrimping in Southern Waters"; "Seaport: A Waterfront at Work"; and "The Land I'm Bound To."

The success of his Bird Girl image helped him open a gallery in Savannah and work on other photographic projects. But the "Midnight" cover image, which he took great pride in, remained his most recognizable photograph.

"The image was truly born out of love for, and understanding of, the place I call home," he was quoted as saying in a statement released by his gallery.

Leigh, who is survived by his companion, Susan Patrice, and three daughters, was diagnosed with cancer last November. He was buried May 22 in his family's plot in Bonaventure Cemetery, not far from where the Bird Girl statue once stood.

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