In all of his photos, Van Leo “left his unique imprint on them and made them a sign of his existence,” said Abdel-Hadi, who is the chief photographer at Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.
“The magic in Van Leo’s photos comes from his feeling of the charisma of the person who is being photographed,” Abdel-Hadi said. “Most of the exhibition’s photos have a charismatic touch.”
From Turkey to Egypt
Van Leo, whose real name was Levon Alexander Boyadjian, was born to an Armenian family in Turkey in 1921. After his family fled to Egypt in 1925, Van Leo spent his childhood in Zagazig, northeast of Cairo in the Nile Delta, before the family moved to Cairo in 1930.
Van Leo attended the American University in Cairo in 1939 and 1940, but left his studies to pursue his passion in photography. First, he undertook an apprenticeship at Studio Venus, owned by the famous Armenian photographer Arakel Artinian. In 1941, Van Leo and his brother Angelo opened their own studio in two rooms of the family apartment and called it Angelo Studio.
In 1947, Van Leo bought a studio in downtown Cairo. He called it after his name and worked there until he retired in 1998. Before his death in 2002, Van Leo donated his personal archive to AUC.
The photographs in the exhibition are from the university library’s rare books and special collections departments.
Among the photographs on display are Van Leo’s famous portrait of Taha Hussein, sometimes called the “dean of Arabic literature”. Other celebrity photos include portraits of the novelist Yusuf Al-Sibai, the composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab, the singer Dalida, the film director Shadi Abdel Salam, and the actors Omar Sharif, Anwar Wagdi, and Rushdi Abaza. The exhibition also presents rare never-before-shown shots, including portraits of the dancer Samia Gamal, and the actress Sherihan as a child.
A Master of Technique
Although some of the photos are decades-old, they are still attractive, thanks to the techniques Van Leo used in their composition and choice of lighting angles, Abdel-Hadi said.