Photo Courtesy: The American University in Cairo

In the mid-1990s, Abdullah Schleifer, an American professor of media studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC), following up on a lead in the local press, walked into an old portrait studio on 26th of July Street in the city’s downtown district. What he found was a veritable repository of treasures: an elderly photographer living in a 1940s-era studio surrounded by ageing equipment and a wilderness of old black-and-white portraits of forgotten personages. As Schleifer enthusiastically informed his friends and colleagues, and as word of the surviving legend spread throughout Cairo’s artistic and expatriate circles, the local press would hail the rediscovery of Egypt’s last great art photographer.

The photographer, Levon Boyadjian, or ‘Van Leo’ as he called himself, was the last in a long line of distinguished Armenians who pioneered and dominated the burgeoning craft of photography in the Middle East. Working for close to 60 years, the eccentric photographer created some of the most interesting black-and-white portraits ever produced in the Arab world. Part artist-philosopher and part aspiring actor/director, Van Leo came to prominence as a photographer during Cairo’s belle époque – a cosmopolitan period spanning the late 19th to mid-20th centuries and known for its relative liberal mores and multiculturalism. His unique aesthetic successfully fused the worlds of fantasy, glamour and documentary studio-portraiture.

Born in the village of Jihane in eastern Turkey in 1921, Van Leo fled with his family to Egypt at the age of four, escaping the persecution of Armenians during and after the First World War. As a young man living in Cairo, he became enamoured of, and obsessed with, Hollywood movie stars, collecting magazines and miniature cards featuring still images of his favourite actors and actresses in character. Intoxicated by cinema and living in a fantasy world of fictional characters and make-believe, Van Leo decided to leave his floundering studies at the American University and devote his life to photographing people in the manner of a possessed cinema director with a stills camera.

At 19, Van Leo used his connections in the Armenian photographic community to arrange an apprenticeship at Artinian’s Studio Venus in downtown Cairo in 1940. There he managed to extract as many trade secrets as he could from an otherwise reticent boss. Seeing his enthusiasm and wanting to encourage his inborn entrepreneurial spirit, Van Leo’s father purchased for him a 10×10 format studio camera and lighting equipment for his son and suggested that he start photographing his work colleagues for profit. Van Leo promptly left Studio Venus and set-up in partnership with his brother Angelo, opening up “Angelo Studio” in the living room of the Boyadjian family apartment on 18 Fouad 1st Avenue, in January 1941.

Portrait of an actor playing a soldier by Van Leo

Photo: Van Leo (AUC)

Portrait of a woman named Miss Nadia by photographer Van Leo

Photo: Van Leo (AUC)

With World War Two in full swing, and with Cairo in the clutches of internationalists and grand-strategists, there was no shortage of clientele for the young neophyte portraitist. British soldiers stationed in the Egyptian capital, and the hordes of foreign entertainers that flocked to the city to find work and to escape the war in Europe, not only formed the backbone of Van Leo’s clientele, but also became his most cooperative and malleable subjects.

At times, in exchange for a free portrait, the photographer would convince his most attractive sitters to give him complete creative license. His approach in this regard was to employ cinematic techniques of artificial light, shadow, and suggestive poses to generate charismatic personas – iconic creations that bordered on film noire in their mood and which invoked moments of drama. In this way Van Leo blurred the lines between reality and fiction in an era and culture when such artistic approaches had not yet arisen in the collective imagination. “I am like a film director, “Van Leo once remarked. “The customer has no idea what to do.”

It was partly in this strange and novel manner that Van Leo captured the personalities in Cairo during the heady war years of the 1940’s and after. Beginning with World War Two theatre troops, he quickly moved to photographing aristocrats, cabaret dancers, singers, actors, expatriates, and Egyptians from all walks of life. As his reputation grew, countless people flocked to his studio to be photographed. These included such Middle Eastern notables and society figures as the writer Taha Hussein, actors Omar Sharif, Rushdie Abaza, Samia Gamal, and the singers Farid al-Atrache and Dalida.

Self portrait of photographer Van Leo taken in Cairo 1948.

Photo: Van Leo (self-portrait)

As much as Van Leo is known today as a photographer of Egypt’s upper-crust, he is becoming equally renowned as a self-portraitist, having taken over 400 photographs of himself disguised as 400 different characters. Van Leo’s fictional avatars range from Zorro to Rasputin to Sam Spade and all manner of personas in-between: from a steamship captain, to a gangster, to a British fighter-bomber pilot. Each of these images provides a key to the furthest depths of Van Leo’s psyche, linking the observer directly with a man who wanted to live every fictional character in endless worlds of his own making. Indeed Van Leo admitted to devoting most of his free time in the 1940’s to creating self-portraits. “My father used to get very angry,” Van Leo admitted in 1998. “He’d tell me: ‘Did you make the studio for yourself or for the customer? Stop making photos of yourself!’”

Van Leo’s struggles with identity and personality were not just visible in the realms of his photographic fictions. They also appeared in his personal life. His relationship with his brother and business partner Angelo, a much overlooked aspect of his formation as an artist, was as difficult and complex a matter as any in his life. “The two brothers were as opposite in character as any two people could possibly be,” says Angelo’s surviving daughter, Katia Boyadjian, an artist and photographer who lives in Normandy, France. “Angelo was loud, over-confidant, flamboyant, reckless, irresponsible, and a gambler, while Van Leo was artistic, quiet, feminine, solitary, and was cautious and miserly in the extreme.” But he was also devoted to his work.

When Angelo started to neglect his duties at the studio, and began dipping into the studio cash-till to support his lifestyle of drunken late-night parties at the Cairo cabarets, Van Leo decided to abort the partnership. In 1947, the brothers terminated their collaboration and both photographers looked to begin anew professionally. In the summer of that year Van Leo bought “Studio Metro”, located across the street on 7 Fouad 1st Avenue, from Kourken Yegorian for 450 Egyptian pounds – a price that included the equipment and furniture. Studio Metro would be renamed “Studio Van Leo” by Boyadjian later, in 1955. Meanwhile his brother kept the old “Studio Angelo,” which he eventually moved to Cherif Pasha Street, and then to a different location Adbel Khalek Tharwat Street.

Van Leo and his brother Angelo at the Helmiyya Palace in Cairo

Van Leo (left) and Angelo (right) with ladies at a Cairo cabaret. Photo Courtesy of Katia Boyadjian.

“There was no resentment between the brothers when I first met them in 1953,” says Raga Serag, Van Leo’s former studio assistant and girlfriend who today lives in Cairo’s crowded Shubra district. “Relations were very normal. Of course, Angelo was an afreet (mischievous) but Leon was very patient with him.”

Though still amicably tied, the two brothers, now business rivals, would find their relationship over time increasingly beset with tension. Angelo and Van Leo envied each other for the position each came to occupy in life; a strange irony, considering that both brothers were deeply dissatisfied with their respective achievements. Eventually, Angelo would emigrate to Paris in 1960 with his French wife in tow, where he would struggle as a photographer with mixed success, dreaming constantly of returning to Egypt while Van Leo looked at Angelo in envy, himself wanting to flee the country but not having the strength or will to do so. “Both men lived in a kind of perpetual exile, always as foreigners, and with identity issues,” Boyadjian says.

Although Angelo took as many of his own negatives and prints with him upon leaving in 1947 – including his own images of Omar Sharif, Dalida and Samia Gamal – it remains difficult to discern which of a number of Van Leo’s early photographs were his alone or were instead the result of an equal collaboration between the two brothers. Even though it is generally agreed that Van Leo was the more talented of the brothers, and that their styles bear different artistic signatures, many of the narratives published on Van Leo until now have assumed that all of his work up until 1947 was his alone. “In a sense the boundary between Van Leo and Angelo in the early years is one which will always be blurred,” Boyadjian says. “Overall, you cannot know one man without knowing the other.”

From a professional standpoint, Angelo’s flight from Egypt may not have been the worst of all possible fates for an Egyptian photographer at that time. Although managing to take high quality black-and-white portraits well into the 1960s, increasing political upheavals, a vanishing clientele, and the slow decline of black-and-white photography caused Van Leo’s business to flounder by the early 1970s. The 1980s saw an even further withdrawal by the artist from an increasingly indifferent and growingly conservative Cairo, more interested in passport photos than in fine art photographs. This state of affairs persisted until the early-mid 1990s when Van Leo was suddenly rediscovered by Cairo’s expatriates, like Professor Schleifer and others, who, smitten with nostalgic curiosity, found in Van Leo and his work a living link to an otherwise irretrievable past.

A self-portrait of Van Leo in his apartment in 1997.

Photo: Katia Boyadjian

Pushing the limits of old age and ill-health, Van Leo finally stopped making photographs in 1998. Fearing for the future of his negatives and prints, he made the decision at the prompting of a friend and fellow photographer, Barry Iverson, to donate his entire corpus of work and equipment to the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the American University in Cairo (AUC), which today houses “The Van Leo Collection”. The Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, an organization devoted to collecting and preserving old photographs of the Middle East, nominated Van Leo for the prestigious Prince Claus Award, which the Cairo Photographer won in 2000. However, he would only enjoy for a short time the revival of interest in his work that the award afforded. Van Leo passed away in March 2002 at the age of 80.

Since then Van Leo has not surprisingly become something of a legend within the Middle East photographic community. A number of articles about his life and work, written by friends and colleagues who knew him in his final years, abound. Each pays homage to a man who, in his insistence to persevere in his art, found himself increasingly alienated from society and life at large. The apocryphal, and almost at times mythical quality of these tributes, each reaching deep into an obscure past, mirror the extent to which mystery and ambiguity still surround Van Leo as a man; a mystery made more fulsome and enigmatic by his own photographic fictions which often overshadowed the reality of who he was.

Among those who knew Van Leo in his final years and who were influenced by his work is Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari. In 2001, Zaatari, with the backing of the Arab Image Foundation, of which he is a member, directed Her + Him Van Leo – a short film featuring the photographer and employing elements of both documentary and fiction. The film received the Grand Prize at the Ismailia Documentary and Short Film Festival in Egypt in 2002.

Zaatari first met Van Leo in 1998 while accompanying an AIF colleague to Cairo to see the aging photographer in an attempt to convince him to donate some of his images to the Foundation. “Van Leo’s work differed from other photographers I had seen in the region,” says Zaatari. “What attracted me mostly in these images was the amount of self-portraits he made in the 1940s, disguised in different personalities. Having been so much influenced by film, because he learned through film magazines, his self-portraits reminded me of Cindy Sherman.”

Soon after meeting Van Leo, Zaatari spent an entire afternoon recording a video interview with the Cairo portraitist in his studio as part of his research work for the Foundation. At the time, he had no intention of using the footage to make any kind of film. But in 2001, shortly after Van Leo received the Prince Claus Award, Zaatari came up with the idea of using his interview footage with the Cairo photographer to create a “kind of dialogue with Van Leo as opposed to a film about him.”

Photographer Van Leo holds up a photo a woman taken in the 1950s

Photo: Katia Boyadjian

Combining elements from both the fictional and documentary genres, and drawing upon Van Leo’s original photography and the 1998 interview footage, Zaatari depicts an encounter between Van Leo and an anonymous researcher/video artist who goes to see Van Leo after finding an old photograph of his scantily clad grandmother taken by the Cairo photographer in 1959.

Through its playful and idiosyncratic narrative, Her + Him Van Leo brings its viewer face-to-face with the cloistered and lacklustre portraitist, then at the very end of his career and consumed by ill-health and a creeping dementia. Shining through Van Leo’s seeming incoherence, but also informing it, is a rich collection of insights and memories of the past.

So, too, is the film a depiction of how an artist from one generation defined – and later worked in defiance of – art in the face of the inevitable technological changes that made later works, such as Zaatari’s video, possible. Van Leo’s constant complaint in his later years, expressed more than once in the film, was his belief that the craft of “Art Photography” had been overthrown by the creation of colour photography and video, a view given little credence by Zaatari, but nonetheless a theme seized upon by the director at another level.

“What makes his work interesting for me is the possibility of raising through him a wider question about those dying traditions of image production, and of connecting those traditions to more contemporary ones in contemporary art,” Zaatari says. “Although for him, these pictures were made to demonstrate to clients the endless possibilities of photography, the final result evoked indeed something that wasn’t of his intention – at least nowadays in light of the recent history of art.”