How Van Leo's photography captured the majesty of the Cairene and Arab psyche
The first time I heard of the late Armenian photographer Van Leo was in 2002 when I was a student at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Cairo was Van Leo’s home and is the natural location for a vast collection of his portraits of mid-twentieth-century cosmopolitan Cairene society and hundreds of his self-portraits.
Reconstructing Van Leo’s life a posteriori to answer the question of who he was might sound like a formidable task. However, his work, especially that of his early days, is indeed worth revisiting.
The current fascination with his portraits is both a result of present concerns about the loss of photographic memory of the past in the region and the need to preserve photographic archives as a cultural heritage.
"Van Leo became known for depicting a section of Cairo’s cosmopolitan society, photographing an abundance of personalities from the entertainment world, from fashion models, to authors and Egyptian celebrities of the so-called Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, between the 1940s until the 1960s"
A new three-volume publication titled Becoming Van Leo sheds light on several issues of the photographer's life and creation.
Released in Beirut in late 2021 by the Arab Image Foundation (AIF, in Beirut) and Archive Books (Berlin), the book is authored by Karl Bassil in collaboration with Negar Azimi, both members of the AIF, the foundation that digitised Van Leo’s collection.
The publication was made possible with the contribution of Angelo’s daughter and Van Leo’s niece Katia Boyadjian, herself an artist based in France, and with the cooperation of the American University in Cairo.
It was in 1998 that Van Leo, by now old and tired, was persuaded by his friend Barry Iverson to donate to AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library (RBSCL) the negatives and prints from his studio's archives, photographic equipment and library. Working to safeguard his entire archive, the academic institution also retained Van Leo’s personal photographs and the correspondence between members of his family and friends.
Van Leo was born in Jihane, present-day Turkey, on November 20, 1921, with the name of Levon Boyadjian, and was the youngest of three children. His parents emigrated to the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria, unmoored after the Armenian genocide, and eventually settled in Cairo.
He opened his first photo studio with his brother, Angelo, in 1941, initially located in the apartment where the two young brothers lived with their parents. After this collaboration fell apart, he opened his own photo studio, Studio Metro, in 1947, in a building located at Avenue Fuad in Cairo (currently 26 of July Street).
It was then that he would come to be known under the pseudonym of Van Leo, an approximate anagram of Levon, the Armenian equivalent of Leon. A name that is probably also a homage to expressionist painter Van Gogh about whom he had purchased several books.
Although interested in the craft of photography as an artistic language, Van Leo produced works that were primarily commercial.
Initially inspired by Hollywood’s style of photography, in its use of light, poses and hairstyles, Van Leo became known for depicting a section of Cairo’s cosmopolitan society, photographing an abundance of personalities from the entertainment world, from fashion models to authors and Egyptian celebrities of the so-called Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, between the 1940s until the 1960s.
He also produced some studio photography for everyday people, ranging from family and wedding portraits and with much surprise, nudes.
In Volume I of Becoming Van Leo, we see, for example, the portrait of a young Omar Sharif, first photographed by Van Leo in 1950, who, like many others, visited his studio to have appropriate headshots to present to film directors.
We also see Farid Al-Atrash, the composer, singer and actor of Syrian origin, and Dalida, the French singer and actress born in Egypt to Italian parents.
Van Leo’s portrait of the Egyptian writer Taha Hussein is iconic. He was not impressed by the fame of Taha Hussein, as we read in the monograph titled Un fotografo di nome Van Leo (A photographer named Van Leo, Skira editore, 2007), and he didn’t feel pity for him, for his condition as a blind person. Taha Hussein never took off his glasses and this is exactly what Van Leo’s image captures of him.
"The current fascination with his portraits is both a result of present concerns about the loss of a photographic memory of the past in the region and the need to preserve photographic archives as a cultural heritage"
Back in the 1940s Cairo had experienced a characteristic wartime nightlife. It was at that time that young Levon and Angelo started finding their way to entertainment circles, frequenting cabarets and Emad el-Din Street casinos. They were also invited to private events.
To attract new clients, they initially offered to photograph the foreign troops stationed in Egypt during the Second World War, soldiers and officers from Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, members of the South Africa U.D.F. Entertainment Unit and British theatre actors. Europe was at war, and Cairo’s population was inundated with refugees and thousands of soldiers from the British empire stationed for operations throughout the region.
We see that one of his young black and white self-portraits was hand-tinted in colours. In many ways Van Leo’s self-portraits explored his search for possible identities, resulting in a proliferation of invented self: in one he played the role of a gangster, in another an aviator in uniform.
There is a series of shots with complex studio sets or photomontages staging ‘illusionary’ women. Van Leo’s self-portraits have been viewed as a bit too eccentric, too.
On the other hand, they display superb handling of shadows and knowledge of the craft. In those portraits, the majority of which were taken between the 1940s and the 1950s, Val Leo was using analog photography techniques that included solarization, use of glass shields and filters, and sandwiched negatives.
It is true that several of his self-portraits echo the photographic style of the Surrealists Man Ray and Maurice Tabard. The first solo exhibition of Van Leo’s work in the US, held in 2018 at Cornell University, was titled Van-Leo: The Reluctant Surrealist though.
In an essay published in the exhibition catalogue, independent curator for the RBSCL Cairo, Ola Seif, questions the artist’s connection to the Egyptian Surrealist Group, “Art et Liberté'' (active from 1938 to 1948) which was affiliated with the international movement.
Van Leo met at least one member of the prominent Egyptian Surrealist Group, Angelo de Riz, as seen in a portrait of de Riz dated 1946 and taken at his home in the Citadel, in Cairo, an Ottoman building in the heart of an old quarter, located opposite the surrealist headquarters, Maison des Artes. But there is no evidence that he became involved with their intellectual discourse.
In 1952 the revolution changed life in Cairo. After the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, many foreigners living in Egypt were forced to leave. Angelo became unhappy with the new and oppressive atmosphere and moved to France in the early 1960s, together with his family. A decision he would regret. He had married a French wife, Colette Membrat, whom he met when she was a cabaret dancer working for a Marseille-based troupe that had moved from Istanbul to Cairo.
A number of letters published in the third volume of Becoming Van Leo tell us that Van Leo – instead – remained a resident of Cairo throughout his life, although he had made different travels abroad. Van Leo was definitely more conformist than his brother, but he never married.
He kept photographing Egyptian celebrities until the end of the 1970s when studio portraits went out of style. In 2000 he was awarded the prestigious Royal Netherlands Prince Claus fund prize for photography (the Prince Claus Award). He passed away two years later, in March 2002, leaving behind a 60-year body of portraiture and self-portraiture work, as well as professional and personal documents.
Elisa Pierandrei is an Italian journalist and author based in Milan. She writes and researches stories across art, literature, and the visual media.
Follow her on Twitter: @shotofwhisky