VAN LEO: Cairo’s Master Photographer

Photo Courtesy of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library

By Amenah AbouWard

Held at the Photographic Gallery in Abdul Latif Jameel Hall, Van-Leo: A Rare Look exhibition is there to commemorate the brilliance of Armenian photographic genius Van Leo, From March 4th to March 29th.

Even though the Van-Leo exhibit isn’t an annual occurrence, it has been held four times since 1996. According to Noura Bahgat, Curator of the Photographic Gallery, this year’s gallery is different in the fact that it not only displays his most “dramatic and glamorous portraits, which only pure talent could bring out”, but also “more personal artifacts, such as handwritten notes and personal relics.”

Van Leo, born Leon Boyadjian, attended the American University in Cairo briefly in 1940, when he decided that formal education was not for him. He decided to pursue a career in photography, a passion of his that dated back to 1927, when a family friend encouraged him to seek an internship at the prestigious Studio Venus, run by an Armenian photographer by the name of Artinian.

During his time there, he formed a close bond with Armenian photo-retoucher Bedros Aslanian, whom photographer Barry Iverson describes in the exhibition booklet as “A remarkable human version of Adobe Photoshop on the market 60 years ago.” Even after his decision to leave Studio Venus, for the lack of opportunity and space to grow, he still stayed in touch with Bedros, and used him for many years “because he was the best.”

It is safe to say that Van Leo started his career with a bang. By 1944, his mastery of photographic art was apparent in his portrait of South African entertainer Teddy Lane, wherein he applied Vaseline to his face, and added a black backdrop in order to emphasize the entertainer’s features, such as his blond hair and blue eyes.

By 1947, the Opera House advertised Van Leo’s studio gratuitously in return for the free portraits he had grown accustomed to; and it is because of these portraits that Van Leo became automatically attributed to the stars of that time.

According to Ola Seif, Curator of Photography Collections at the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, where the entirety of Van Leo’s work is stored, Leon’s work “provided an additional component” that many other photographers were not able to offer. “He experimented a lot,” she noted, “And as a result, his portraits were unique in forms and contrast.”

Even though Van Leo had many famous clients such as Zumorudah, Roushdi Abaza, Elham Zaki, Dalida, and Taha Hussein, he looked for beauty wherever he went. According to Barry Iverson, he once paid a beggar one pound to come with him to the studio to get his picture taken, merely “because he liked his face.”

But despite his initial success, Van Leo was not satisfied. “He wanted more recognition and appreciation for his artistic talent,” Ola Seif added, “He wanted to immigrate, because he thought he would find more success as an artist in cities like New York or Paris.”

His artistry is definitely reflected in his ‘Auto portraits’; those pictures of himself dressed in many different characters such as Jesus, a beggar, women, a WWII pilot, a thief, and many others. These portraits reflect his love of photography as an art, rather than a financial means to an end, as per Barry Iverson, “No profit seeking commercial photographer would be sidetracked by such endeavors… But to Leon, it was food for thought, artistry for its own sake.”

In 1998, in light of his diminishing health, Van Leo donated his entire life’s work to the American University in Cairo. This collection includes over 19,000 negatives, 16,000 prints, studio equipment, and even furniture; some of which are on display at the exhibition, which seeks to “honor his legacy” in full understanding that his work is “staggering and unique- not only in Egypt and the Arab world, but anywhere.”