Calvin Clifford Leonard.

From the time he first picked up a camera in 2016, Calvin Clifford Leonard has found success. But like it has for many local Santa Monica residents, the recent pandemic has put everything on pause, including Leonard’s first exhibition.

“I grew up in the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica back when you had the gangs and the violence in that area that some people don’t really think of when Santa Monica crosses their mind nowadays,” Leonard said in an interview Monday. “I went to Lincoln (Middle School) and Santa Monica High before I got into some trouble tagging on the streets and whatnot.”

But everything changed when Leonard had his first son.

“I think sometimes it’ll take a person some time to find their niche in life. I’ve always heard that before from a lot of people, and it wasn’t something I really believed until later, because I’ve done a lot of different things,” Leonard said, detailing his experiences with the Screen Actors Guild and the UCLA Chancellor’s Association.

“My last job was Jimmy Kimmel and I hurt my back so I went through some anxiety when I wasn’t working,” Leonard added. “I knew I needed to get out of the house so as I was driving I would see things that’d make me think this would be a cool picture. So I decided to pick up a professional camera and take some pictures.”

Using Youtube, his prior knowledge of Photoshop and a good friend who he could lean on for advice and mentorship, Leonard began to learn the skills of the trade by taking photos of the scenes he encountered on the street.

“Then I started taking pictures of people. And I want to say in about a year, I got really, really good,” he said. “I was very proud of myself because when I talked to photographers, a lot of the ones that I talked to said that I was pretty much ahead of the curve.”

Eventually, Leonard found himself taking headshots — some that would go on to get published online — working with local eateries, real estate companies, and even Facebook.

“There’s a store in Santa Monica called Marco Polo Imports and they wanted to get some more art and photography in the shop,” Leonard said. “ So I came in there to show my work, and it was crazy because he just picked out like five pictures. ‘I want this. I want this, I want that. Can you get it framed?’”

In February, Leonard decided to venture to Las Vegas for the WPPI expo, which he believes is one of the best decisions in his professional career.

“It changed my perspective on everything, like what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong,” Leonard said as he described all that he was able to learn on the trip. “I left that conference and my whole perspective changed… So when I got home from the conference, I was more like, ‘I’m about to take off.’”

Less than a month after the conference, Leonard was set to host his first exhibition at The Nearby Value art Gallery in Silverlake last Saturday on March 28. But the pandemic forced him to postpone the showing to June 6.

“And even that’s in the air because nobody knows when this will be done,” Leonard said, sharing, “It’s a little disappointing because I had a good number of people who were going to show up. DK’s Donuts and Pabst beer was a sponsor. I had a DJ lined up. I had the event on EventBrite and it was going to be a good event, especially considering it’d be my first exhibition.”

But Leonard understands COVID-19 has ruined a lot for everybody.

“Not just me but a lot of people around the world have had far worse happen …,” he added. “So, I’m going to take this as a bump in the road; nothing more negative than that. And when this is over, I’m going to get back on my path and go from there.”

brennon@smdp.com