Van Leo

Levon Boyadjian, Van Leo (1921-2002)


Van Leo, born Levon Boyadjian, is an Egyptian-Armenian photographer who worked from 1940 until 1970s. His photography is considered one of the pivotal stages of photography’s development in Egypt. Leo was born into a middle-class Armenian family who had moved to Cairo in the early 1880s. He turned to photography quite early in his life after dropping out of American University in Cairo. At first, Leon worked as an apprentice to Artinian, the proprietor of Studio Venus, before opening up his first premises at his own house in 1941. He was helped by his older brother Angelo, who would go on to become a renowned photographer in his own right. In 1947, the Boyadjian brothers decided to separate and Leo opened his new premises at Studio Metro. He purchased the portrait studio Metro, located at 7 Fuad I Avenue from Kourken Yegorian for 450 Egyptian pounds – a price that included the equipment and furniture and where he worked until the end of his professional life. 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. Leo soon achieved popularity in Cairo’s vibrant artistic and bohemian scene. His portraits of Egyptian stars such as Omar Sharif and Loula Sedki were widely distributed in the press and through postcards, making him a well-known brand to an elite clientele. The combination of Hollywood-style glamour, romanticism,  sentimentality with electric eroticism, gave Van Leo’s portraits a truly artistic dimension that went beyond the scope of studio portraiture. In fact, each sitter, be it a celebrity or an ordinary citizen was treated in the same way, with the photographer always aiming to find the suitable ‘vision’ for his sitter’s look. Indeed, everyone who came in through the studio’s doors could feel like a star for a moment. Thus each of Van Leo’s portraits is a brilliantly concocted theatrical mask that most likely had little to do with the actual sitter.

Alongside his commercial practice, Van Leo created an enormous body of experimental works. His corpus of self-portraits, created from his 20s to 40s is one of the largest of its kind in the world. This, now famous series, is a stunning gallery of self-reflexive, modernist photography through which the artist explored notions of identity, sexuality and photography itself. Each self-portrait represents a character inspired from films, theatre, crime novels, news and dreams. In their pastiche-like approach they predate Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled movie stills’ by some thirty years.

Van Leo’s passion for portrait photography can be traced back to his teenage years, when he was a student at the English Mission College in Cairo’s suburb of Heliopolis. At age 16, he was bored with school work and more interested in sports; however, what the young man became fascinated with was Hollywood postcards which he began collecting. He was drawn to the dramatic side lighting that produced deep shadows, the careful positioning of the hands, the well-chosen props, and the backgrounds, all of which he would later incorporate into his own work.

After completing his secondary studies in 1939, Van Leo enrolled at the American University in Cairo, only to withdraw a year later and resume an apprenticeship at Studio Venus, which he had started the previous summer. By then, he had realized that his future was in photography. The studio owner, Arakel Artinian, was a classical photographer who was fond of Van Leo and saw great potential in him. After three months, Van Leo quit training at Studio Venus. He was optimistic about his prospects, but he needed help. He therefore approached his older brother Angelo and they decided to start a joint venture. In January 1941, they opened a studio in their parents’ living room. To help his sons launch their business, Alexander Boyadjian offered some of the equipment including the mammoth 10×10 inch large format camera, which would remain Van Leo’s primary camera until he retired in 1998. Angelo’s signature appeared on all the prints. It wasn’t until 1947, the last year of the partnership that both brothers signed side-by-side. Despite the separation, Van Leo produced some of his best work while he and Angelo were together.

One of his early customers was super star Rushdy Abaza, who at the time was an aspiring actor with a day job at the Union-Vie French insurance company, located in Van Leo’s building. In need of a portfolio to show directors, Abaza went to Van Leo to have his portrait taken. This picture was Abaza’s ticket to his first minor roles, and when he became a big shot he never forgot the photographer who catapulted him to fame and spread the word.

In spite of ups and downs in his career, which resulted from changes in Egyptian politics and society and the commercialization of photography, Van Leo strove to maintain high standards and stay faithful to his art. During the first decade after 1952, Van Leo managed to keep his business afloat, However, his clientele largely dried out. Out of necessity, the art photographer had to resort to taking passport pictures, and wedding and family portraits.

Although he had to respond to market demands to survive, Van Leo was never motivated by money. His true passion was his art as announced on his business card, which read, “Van Leo-Art Photographer.” He was a stoic who forged his own way by working hard and doing everything himself. He had no secretary to usher in clients, no accountant to maintain the books, no lab assistant to process his film, and not even a studio assistant to change light positions, or lift his heavy wooden studio camera. Clients had to either ring the bell or call for appointments.

On January 24, 1998 Van Leo took his last portrait, which was of photographer Barry Iverson and his wife Nihal. Leo announced the closure of the studio marking the end of an era. In April, 1998, his work was chosen for preservation at the American University in Cairo. 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, which today houses “The Van Leo Collection”. In March 2002, Van Leo passed away from a heart attack at his apartment in Cairo at the age of 80.

Some of his works



Egyptian lady, 1949



 Ragaa Mohamed Serag, film star, 1953. She was Van Leo’s former studio assistant and girlfriend who today lives in Cairo’s crowded Shubra district


Mercedes, cabaret entertainer, 1945


Miss Nelly, Greek dancer, 1946



Miss Iliana, Italian girl, 1950


Miss Zummoroda, film star, 1950





1950


Italian lady, 1950



Valery van Dool, 1945


European Dancer, 1953


English lady, 1940s


English girl


Italian girl





1940s
 

Cabaret dancers, Cairo


Nelly Mazloum









 



Greek lady, 1955



 

1960s 


Zubaida Tharwat



Miss Nadia, Egyptian Teatro beginner actress, 1954


Berlenti Abdul Hamid


Mervat Amin, 1973


Young couple, 1940s. Norbert Schiller Collection, photograph by Angelo and Van Leo


Portrait of a woman in costume, 1940s. Norbert Schiller Collection, photograph by Van Leo



1950s


Hand-coloured portrait of a young woman. c. 1960s.


Woman in red, 1960s


Actor Rushdy Abaza, c. 1950s


The portrait of Rusdy Abaza that got him his first movie role. Circa late 1940s. Norbert Schiller Collection, photograph by Van Leo


Half-body portrait of a gentleman with both Van Leo and Metro Studio signed on the print. Circa late 1940s.  Norbert Schiller Collection, photograph by Van Leo


Soldier At The Front, Cairo, 1940s



Portrait of a Ukrainian dancer, Cairo, 1960. American University in Cairo Collection


Half-body portrait of a young woman with both Van Leo and Metro Studio signed on the print. Circa late 1940s. Norbert Schiller Collection, photograph by Van Leo


Full-body portrait of a woman in a swimsuit. c. 1950s


Portrait of an allied soldier by brothers Angelo and Van Leo taken at their studio in the family home at 18 Fuad I Avenue in Cairo. Circa early 1940s. Patrick Godeau Collection, Photo by Angelo and Van Leo


Portrait of a woman in the U.S. army. c. 1945. American University in Cairo Collection, photograph by Van Leo


Samia Gamal


Wedding party, 1960s. Norbert Schiller Collection


Writer and intellectual Taha Hussein, 1950


Nubar, 1944


Teddy Lane, South African dancer, Cairo, 1945. Leo decided to apply Vaseline to the cheeks and forehead, and place a black velvet cloth behind his head to completely darken the background and accentuate the face


Drury Smith, 1945


European lady, 1946



Miss Nadia Abdel Wahed, 1959






Madeleine, Parisian striptease dancer, 1961


1950


Czechoslavakian dancers, Cairo, 1946


Cabaret lady, 1953


1950


The last portrait made by Van Leo of Barry Iverson and his wife Nihal Tamraz. c. 1998. Barry Iverson Collection, photograph by Van Leo


Self-portrait, 1950


Self-portrait, 26 June 1941. The American University in Cairo Collection


Self-portrait, 1942



 Self-portrait, 1944



Self-portrait of Van Leo. Circa late 1930s


Van Leo in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, 1955


Van Leo on a balcony. Circa 1970s


 A photo Van Leo made of his brother Angelo and dance partner Kay Own for a show Angelo starred in called Music On Wheels, Cairo, c. 1946. The American University in Cairo Collection


 Angelo and Van Leo's first studio was in the family home at 18 Fuad I Avenue in Cairo. Circa early 1940s. The American University in Cairo Collection


Angelo and Van Leo's first studio was inside the family home at 18 Fuad I Avenue in Cairo. Circa early 1940s. Norbert Schiller Collection, photograph by Angelo and Van Leo


 Van Leo kept the Metro logo on his prints for some time after purchasing the studio. This is the back side of Rushdy Abaza's portrait. Circa late 1940s


Outside view of Metro Sudio which Van Leo purchased in 1947 after ending his business relationship with his brother Angelo. Circa late 1940s, early 50s. The American University in Cairo Collection


Van Leo (left) and Angelo (right) with ladies at the Cairo cabaret, Helmiyya Palace. Photo Courtesy of Katia Boyadjian


Van Leo (L) standing with his bother Angelo outside Angelo's photo studio in Paris. Circa late 1950s. The American University in Cairo Collection. Angelo emigrated to Paris in 1960 with his French wife



Van Leo's notes about film type and photo cropping. c. 1990s. The American University in Cairo Collection


Van Leo's business, which he gave to the Austrian photographer Josef Polleross in the early 1990s (c. 1996) when he first met him at his studio. Norbert Schiller Collection


Self-portrait, 1997. Photo Courtesy of Katia Boyadjian


Van Leo holding a photo of Miss Nadia Abdel Wahed, Cairo, 1997. Photo Courtesy of Katia Boyadjian



 Van Leo beside his treasured camera. Circa 1996


Van Leo adjusting the pose of David Miles during a photo shoot with him and his wife Helen. Circa January 1996. Photographs by Josef Polleross


David Miles takes a cigarette break while Van Leo adjusts his camera during the photo session. Circa January 1996


Van Leo walking back to the camera during a photo shoot with Helen


 Van Leo adjusting the lighting on Helen


Van Leo adjusting Helen Miles' pose


David and Helen Miles pose while Van Leo takes their photo



Van Leo poses for Josef Polleross. c. 1996


Van Leo retouching one of his prints. c.1996. Photo by Josef Polleross


Full body portrait of Van Leo. c. 2001. Photograph by Barry Iverson


Van Leo at Cairo's Townhouse Gallery after he received the prestigious Prince Claus award, 2000. The American University in Cairo Collection

Credits: Van Leo's biography by Vigen Galstyan, 2016, Barry Iverson's “The Life of Cairo Master Photographer Van Leo.” and John Zada, 2014. Edited and abridged by the Webmaster.

Database of Armenian Photo-Media Practitioners.

Photorientalist.

John Zada.

Norbert Schiller Collection, Arab Image Foundation, The American University in Cairo Collection, Steliano Ponticos, Josef Polleross, Barry Iverson and Katia Boyadjian