Van Leo's unrivaled images of Cairo's belle epoch
by Fatma Bassiouni, Special to the Middle East Times
Van Leo was a tirelessly busy man whose career as a photographer achieved immortality. Today he is a living embodiment of the belle epoch ideal, a remnant of a golden age, an era that he captured on film like no other artist.
Although his career developed in Egypt, he began life in the Turkish town of Jihane in 1921. There he was born Levon Boyadijian and from there his family joined the exodus of Armenians fleeing persecution in Turkey.
But his childhood was not lost to those disturbing realities, and he arrived in Egypt in 1924, where his family went to live in the Delta town of Zagazig.
His introduction to what became his livelihood and passion, the creative art of photography, was occurred on the rooftop of a Zagazig home when he, his brother, sister and parents posed for a family photograph in 1928.
This early contact with photography instilled in him a fascination for the profession that would lead to a career that spanned almost 57 years.
Van Leo was a master of glamour as a genre. His photographs are not only a visual record of one man's times but also an account of the development of an artist and a person, and a history of the world he knew.
Van Leo's inimitable aesthetics in portraits, the sheer tact of his pictures in conjunction with the striking elegance of his sitters, provides an aesthetic jolt that is like walking back into a more rarefied time.
His images capture the personalities in orbit during the belle epoch – from British army officers, to Pashas, to cabaret dancers, actors, writers, directors. They all provide a revealing look at a bygone era that continues to tantalize.
Some of his images have acquired the status of popular icons, the photographer having been paid the ultimate compliment. His portrait of Egyptian literary figure and philosopher, Taha Hussein (1950) is such a case. It took only two poses and a masterpiece was complete.
Photography for Van Leo is a popular art that subverts pretension. He has made portraits of many leading artistic and literary figures of pre-revolutionary Cairo, including Rushdie Abaza, Samia Gamal, Doria Shafik, Farid Al Attrache, Dalida, Taha Hussein and countless others.
The work of Van Leo represents one of the most impressive achievements of the photographic perspective known as portraiture. His photographs, made over a period of more than five decades, are the result of patience, reflection, complicity, and involvement.
Van Leo's decisive move into photography as a profession came in 1940 when he abandoned his studies at the American University in Cairo, having spent his formative years at Cairo's College de la Salle (1930-31) and the British Mission College (1932-1939), in order to become an apprentice in Studio Venus on Qasr El Nile Street in downtown Cairo.
When G. Lekegian arrived in Egypt and opened his studio next to the celebrated Shepheard's Hotel in the late nineteenth century, the intricate recesses of that area where his studio was located – between Qasr El Nil and the Opera Square - developed in the decades that followed into a 'golden triangle of photography.'
Near the center of this golden labyrinth were the studios of Venus, Armand, Archak, Vartan and Alban – some of the most celebrated photographers of the 1930 and 1940s.
Among the plethora of these studios, the most distinguished were almost all Armenian, for at the time photography in Egypt was the domain of the Armenians. In particular, portraiture became their forte, a specialty that Van Leo would later elevate to an art form.
In 1941 Van Leo left Studio Venus and together with his brother, Angelo, turned half of the family flat on Avenue Fouad and Sherif Pasha Street into a studio (the bathroom became the dark-room).
His reputation began to grow, and people began to flock there to have their pictures taken. The sitters were from all walks of life: workers, socialites, debutants, and expatriates.
What distinguished Van Leo's work at the time was a natural flair for flattering portraiture, together with a strong sense of dramatic impact.
Depending on the aesthetics of the sitter, each portrait was turned into an iconic creation. Unwanted lines disappeared, light and shadow interplayed on the face, shadows were accentuated, until all that remained in the portrait was compelling charm, romance, and excitement. Thus Van Leo brought glamour to photographic portraiture.
Although the youngest amongst his peers, the generation that Van Leo belonged to was different from its predecessors in both its claim and its right to attention. This august group included aside from Van Leo, Alban, Cavouk and Armand.
Theirs was a visual world of aesthetics, which was wholly new and different from the tradition of their masters (their predecessors). The photography of the 'old school' – Lekegian, P. Dittrich, Weinberg, Zola, Kerop - was as much an imitation of salon painting as it was an art of its own.
In Van Leo's world photography was glamour, a visual world based purely on the aesthetics of art. In a medium such as photography, where reproduction is based on the cold and scientific effect of light on film, the human element is often insignificant. In Van Leo's work it came first.
If the early years at the family flat and in partnership with his brother Angelo had failed to live up to their romantic promise, the years that followed redressed the balance with a vengeance.
It was 1939. World War II was in full swing. Blackouts, restrictions and shortages of every kind provided constant irritation in Europe. By contrast, Cairo was the stage for polo, parties, espionage and war plans.
The years 1939 to 1945 enmeshed the city with mystery and turned it into a cosmopolitan watering-hole, filled with those actively pursuing the war and those avoiding it.
For Van Leo business boomed. The city was filled with everyone from the old stagers – Vivian Leigh, Noel Coward, Miriam Voigt, Olivia Manning, Lawrence Durrell, Cecil Beaton - to thousands of British Army officers and soldiers, many of whom were cabaret dancers, actors, and writers who had joined the army to 'see the world.'
It was countless numbers of these dancers, singers and actors who flocked to Van Leo seeking to look extraordinary.
As a result of his newly-acquired fame and the growing clientele, Van Leo's productivity swelled to allow him to establish a studio of his own. In 1947 he left the partnership with his brother and bought premises at a strategic location downtown: Avenue Fouad (present day 26th of July Street) and Emad Eddine Street.
His days were filled with work and his clientele continued to be Cairo's cosmopolitan community as well as more prominent personalities: pashas, socialites and film stars frequented the same studio as cabaret performers and young starlets searching for celluloid glory.
With glamour as his motif, Van Leo chronicled the times, the moods, and the style of the bright lights and beauties of a generation.
Though he focused on portraiture in his photographic career, the viewer is rarely struck by a sense of repetition because he was constantly seeking the new in his exploration of the visual resources of his surroundings.
"A face is a landscape," he explains.
Teddy Lane's face was one such landscape. Captured in a 1944 portrait, this image of a British actor stationed in Cairo with the British troops at the height of the war is unmatched, a technical feat. Out of the darkness emerges a head that looks like that of an Etruscan god. In order to convey the texture of a stone sculpture, the model's face was covered with Vaseline and then smothered with sand; his body carefully hidden in a black sack.
Van Leo's 1944 photograph of Anthony Holland – a British actor performing in When Night Must Fall at the Royal Cairo Opera House - has a surreal film noir sentiment to it. The abstract play of light and dark is as effective and powerful as the subject itself.
Van Leo's portraits have a strength that comes from the photographer's depth of understanding of each character.
Asked what attracted him to portraiture, he replied that it had been always the person's face that interested him. His photograph of a 1950s street vendor proves the sentiment's validity very well. It is almost a study of the effects of age, the changes wrought by experience on a face.
One of the great appeals of Van Leo's work lies in the fact that he was able to elaborate a visual style and approach which was the photographic equivalent of the Cairene social tradition of the time.
In their largely urban subject matter, his photographs encapsulate sophistication, the quintessential expression of the modern city. And no city was more modern or sophisticated than pre-revolutionary Cairo.
Van Leo's natural milieu was the ebb and flow of the city's urban crowd. His photography above all else was rooted in that social milieu, that of belle epoch Cairo and its environs. Taken as a whole, his photographs both trace and celebrate the history, culture, politics and preoccupations of that class and period.
The 1952 coup d'etat passed reasonably unnoticed for him in his studio. The new status quo ushered in General Muhammad Naguib (the figurehead who quickly reached his political demise at the hands of Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1954) and the Free Officers movement.
Just as he had done with the pashas of his day, he continued to photograph whoever walked through his studio doors.
In 1952 he was asked to photograph General Naguib at the Abbassia barracks. The photograph in its expression of mood and character transcended the superficiality of the officer's public image.
By the 1960s however the typical Van Leo subject was no longer, as Cairo's cosmopolitan community and its Khedivial panache dwindled during post-revolutionary times. The elegance and sophistication of his time were quickly evaporating.
Thousands of Egypt's high society, Armenians, Jews, Italians and Greeks, left the country. Remaining was a small-diluted circle of nostalgic survivors.
Van Leo's brother Angelo – a familiar social figure at L'Auberge and other Cairene watering holes of his heyday - departed to Paris in 1961 where he established his studio on Avenue Wagram.
Van Leo himself considered establishing himself at Studio Harcourt in Paris but the idea was short-lived. He could not abandon his individuality and his legendary name to become "just another photographer among many at a studio." He decided to remain in his beloved Cairo pursuing his lifetime passion and art.
Though the golden age disappeared, Van Leo continued to aspire to his ideals and produce his art – the studio portrait.
He exhibited his work twice at the American University in Cairo during the early 1990s. But with his photographic activity limited in 1998 (due to poor health he could no longer lift the equipment), Van Leo allowed the responsibility of organizing and displaying his work pass to others. He donated his lifetime's work to the AUC and decided to sell his studio and retire.
Retirement seems to signify the final phase of Van Leo's career, but with astonishing resilience the 78- year-old lives in his downtown flat, reminiscing about old times with the occasional visitor.
Today his pictures not only reflect his times, but exist in a separate right – a record of the artistic concerns and pursuits of one man. Van Leo belongs to that tiny band of artists whose jeweled gifts seem to have been bestowed by the gods - artists whose magic sets them apart from other mortals and turns them into lofty enigmas.
In the world of photography Van Leo is the supreme enigma: a myth in his own time.
The author is director of a forthcoming documentary film about Van Leo's life and times. All photographs appear courtesy of the Van Leo Special Collection at the AUC Library.
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