Who was Van Leo, the self-proclaimed “Man Ray of Egypt”?

A three-volume book brings together studio images, self-portraits and letters by the photographer

In 1942 alone Van Leo took more than 100 self-portraits. Then aged 20, the photographer used dramatic lighting and a dizzying array of costumes and props to reinvent himself again and again. In one image he was curly-haired and unshaven, with a gun tucked into the waistband of his trousers. In another, he was bare-chested and pensive as a pipe drooped from his lips. In yet another, he wore a necklace and clip-on earrings and smiled coyly at the camera while a dress slipped down his shoulders.

Born in Turkey in 1921 to Armenian parents who then fled the crumbling Ottoman empire, Van Leo (the pseudonym of Levon Boyadjian) grew up in Alexandria, Zagazig and Cairo. He was fascinated by Hollywood from a young age and collected black-and-white glamour shots of American film stars. In 1941 he teamed up with his older brother, Angelo, to launch a photography studio in the family flat in Cairo, transforming the dining room into a photography suite and the bathroom into a darkroom (much to the chagrin of his sister, Alice, who became so fed up with clients tramping through the house that she emigrated to Canada).

The two brothers made a name for themselves photographing the actors, dancers and cabaret stars stationed in Egypt to perform for Allied forces during the second world war, and soon turned their attention to Egyptian celebrities. In 1947 Van Leo established his own studio where he photographed everyone from athletes and authors to fashion models and film stars. His commercial portraits were meticulously composed.

At the same time, his self-portraits—of which he took more than 400 over the course of nearly 60 years—were offbeat and at times surreal. “He started doing these self-portraits to learn photography; practise lighting, poses, frames,” says Karl Bassil, the author of “Becoming Van Leo”, a new three-volume book that sheds light on the man behind (and often in front of) the camera. But the habit continued well after Van Leo had mastered his craft. “This is where he is most joyful, playful and humorous,” Mr Bassil adds. “This is where he is the most himself, with no one around.”

The book contains more than 3,000 images bequeathed to the American University in Cairo before Van Leo’s death in 2002, as well as the smaller collection held by the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. It took Mr Bassil, a graphic designer, almost ten years to collate the hundreds of documents included in the book. He worked with Negar Azimi, a writer who conducted dozens of interviews about Van Leo, and Katia Boyadjian, Van Leo’s niece, herself an artist based in France.

The first two volumes contain Van Leo’s self-portraits and a selection of his studio portraits spanning more than five decades. Political, social and cultural change in Egypt is in the background of these images, including the troops stationed in the country during the second world war, the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema between the 1940s and the 1960s, and the impact of the revolution of 1952, which “completely changed the face of Cairo”, says Mr Bassil. Van Leo’s portraits reveal a shift in clientele, from British, French and South African entertainers to locals from long-established Greek, Italian and Jewish communities, then to exclusively Arab subjects. Many foreigners living in Egypt were forced to leave in the 1950s—including members of Van Leo’s family. Angelo followed his French wife to Paris.

Van Leo considered himself an artist, and called himself the “Man Ray of Egypt”, but his work was primarily commercial. His images of Egyptian stars such as Dalida, Sherihan and Taha Hussein were widely reproduced. Towards the end of the 1970s, as studio portraits went out of style, business started to wane. In the late 1980s, against a backdrop of rising Islamism, he burnt the prints and negatives of his nudes. “It’s over. Photography is dead,” he said in 1998.

“Becoming Van Leo” presents an overview of the photographer’s most important work but it also scrutinises his character. The third volume contains hundreds of personal letters, documents and newspaper clippings, as well as dozens of personal interviews that provide intriguing glimpses of a man deeply at odds with the image he presented to the world. “Was Van Leo a solitary genius, one of the most questing and original photographers the Middle East has ever known? A man-boy narcissist…A queer pioneer? Oriental Orientalist? Latter-day surrealist? It’s so hard to tell,” writes Ms Azimi.

Just as in his self-portraits, in which he impersonates everyone from a spy to a pilot to Jesus, Van Leo was a fantasist who created elaborate myths about himself. Several outlandish stories published in the local Egyptian press in the 1950s and 1960s reported that he had travelled to America—a country he never visited—and turned down marriage to an American millionaire heiress, either because she turned out to be a “crone” of “unnatural ugliness”, or because he had to return to Cairo to care for his mother. As well as cementing his place as a leading Middle Eastern photographer of his time, “Becoming Van Leo” suggests he may rank among its most enigmatic characters, too.

The text was first published on: www.economist.com


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