The celebrated Arab photographer who redefined portraiture

The celebrated Arab photographer who redefined portraiture

Van Leo rose to fame as one of the top studio photographers of the Arab world from the 1940s–1960s. A new exhibition taps into the cult of personality, curation of public image, and performance of identity that shaped him.

In 2001, writer and independent curator Negar Azimi began meeting with legendary Armenian-Egyptian portrait photographer, Van Leo, during the final year of his life. By then, the 79-year-old photographer had shuttered his studio and returned to his childhood home where he lived alone in the dark to save on electricity bills. “It felt very much frozen in time,” says Azimi.

After his passing, Van Leo bequeathed his archive to the American University in Cairo and the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, which offered a wealth of clues into the artist whose glamour photography would shape the image of the mid-20th century Middle East.

From this treasure trove, Azimi has curated Becoming Van Leo, the first survey of the artist’s work, chronicling his rise to fame as one of the top studio photographers of the Arab world during the 1940s–1960s. The exhibition taps into the cult of personality, curation of public image, and performance of identity that underlies Van Leo’s photography practice.

Becoming Van Leo also brings to light a previously unseen side of the artist’s work: a series of self-portraits akin to the work of Cindy Sherman, Samuel Fosso, and Yasumasa Morimura. Here, Van Leo takes a spin in front of the camera as a beggar, bomber pilot, serial killer, prisoner, sheikh, and Jesus Christ, as well a repeat appearances as a woman with heavy lipstick.

Van Leo, Self-Portrait, Sunday, November 1, 1942 © The Rare Books and Special Collections Library at The American University in Cairo.
Van Leo, Self-Portrait, 1945. Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

“Van Leo took hundreds of self portraits in his life, especially in the early 1940s,” says Azimi. “Why he did this remains a mystery: was it vanity, experiments to show customers, an expression of his highest art? The ambiguity is part of the appeal.”

What’s more, Van Leo never printed the negatives, an act that reveals as much as it hides, and offers a window into the man who became the Van Leo. Born Levon Alexander Boyadjian to Armenian parents in Turkey in 1921, the family soon fled to Egypt during the aftermath of the Armenian genocide, and made Cairo their home.

In 1941, Levon and his brother Angelo set up a makeshift studio in the family home, chronicling the glamorous faces of Cairo’s Belle Époque society during World War II. In 1947, Levon opened his own studio under the name Van Leo and quickly became the top studio portrait photographer of the times.

Van Leo, “Miss Iliana. Italian. Hands on side of face,” 1950. Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

By mid-century, Egyptian cinema was entering a golden age, its dazzling displays of grandeur lending themselves to Van Leo’s signature sparkle and pomp. “He was known as a photographer of stars,” says Azimi. “Cairo represented Arab Hollywood after all; he immortalized individuals like Omar Sharif, Samia Gamal, Lebleba, Mervat Amin, and so many others.”

But it’s the portraits of “almost famous” and regular folk who were the true beneficiaries of Van Leo’s flawless eye and practiced hand. “Van Leo was a student of Hollywood and its film culture,” says Azimi. “He was an assiduous and adept student and meticulous about light and shadow. The sitting session, as it happens, was rarely fun: often long, laborious. He was a perfectionist until the end."

Becoming Van Leo is on view through November 5, 2023, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

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