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‘Van Leo: Cairo’: Exhibition Chronicles Iconic Egyptian Photographer’s Legacy

More than 150 photographs by Van Leo, one of Egypt’s most prominent photographers in the 20th century and a pioneer of portraiture, are on display at the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir Cultural Centre.

The exhibition, titled “Van Leo: Cairo”, demonstrates the photographer’s iconic style and chronicles the transformations in the techniques he used from the 1940s until the end of the 20th century.

The subjects of Van Leo’s portraits include some of Egypt’s most prominent celebrities in society, culture and the arts. But he also took many photos of unknown people. These photos dispel the common impression of Van Leo as a photographer of the elite, the photojournalist Emad Abdel-Hadi told Al-Fanar Media.

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.”

Emad Abdel-Hadi
 Professional photographer

“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.

Gallery: Van Leo’s Legacy

He added: “These photos highlight the most important elements of portrait composition: the lighting, composition, and the photographer’s view and vision of the character. Van Leo was a master at interweaving these elements.”

For her part, the film director Hala Elkoussy agrees that Van Leo was “a master of his tools at the technical level. However, this is not and cannot be everything when we talk about an artistic product.”

“There is a special charm in Van Leo’s portraits whose causes are difficult to deny,” said Elkoussy, who is interested in documenting the contribution of Armenians to the development of photography in Egypt.

Elkoussy noted that a photo taken in a studio is a paid service provided by the photographer to the customer. “So, the photographer is not free from the burden of satisfying the customer,” she told Al-Fanar Media. “Van Leo, unlike other photographers, used to photograph himself a lot, turning himself to a customer.”

“There is a special charm in Van Leo’s portraits whose causes are difficult to deny.”

Hala Elkoussy
Film director

She added: “It is this self-consciousness that Van Leo experienced firsthand: how the self presents itself, how it is represented in two dimensions, in the form of an image, how it shrinks and how it expands at the same time.”

Dramatic Contrasts

Van Leo varied his technique to match his subjects, Abdel-Hadi said. Speaking of the well-known portrait of Taha Hussein, Abdel-Hadi said:

“This portrait became famous due to its dramatic character created by Van Leo’s lighting that highlights the tragic life of the object with eternal darkness (Hussein was blind). On the other hand, he used soft aesthetic lighting in the portraits he presented to movie stars.”

Besides the black-and-white photographs, which characterize the bulk of Van Leo’s output, the exhibition includes a collection of photographs that were hand-coloured by the photographer.

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It also displays some of Van Leo’s studio furniture, such as his art deco desk and the platform that models and clients stood on in his studio, in downtown Cairo.

The exhibition opened on November 20, which would have been the photographer’s 100th birthday, and continues through February 20, 2022. On the sidelines of the exhibition, the university is holding a series of events about the late photographer’s life and style.

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