For the past two decades, Van Leo’s photography has grown enormously in stature and is now considered one of the most pivotal stages of photography’s development in Egypt.
Leon Boyadjian was born to a middle-class Armenian family who had moved to Cairo in the early 1880s. He turned to photography quite early in his life, opening up his first premises at his own house in the early 1940s. The first official studio was opened in 1947, with his brother, Angelo, who would go on to become a renowned photographer in his own right. Changing his name to the more marketable moniker ‘Van Leo’, Boyadjian was soon the photographer of choice for 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, oriental sense of romanticism and a touch a sentimentality with an often electric eroticism, gave Van Leo’s portraits a truly artistic dimension that went beyond the limited iconography 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 atmosphere to his sitter’s ‘type’. Indeed, everyone who came in through the studio’s doors could feel like a star for a moment and 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.
Working steadily through the Egyptian independence, cultural revolution, studio fires and the eventual decline of the Armenian-dominated field of studio portraiture, Van Leo finally closed his practice in 1998, bequeathing his huge archive to the American University of Cairo. Today, his work has come to define the image of a cosmopolitan, multicultural Egypt between the 1940s and 60s that is one of the most vibrant, complex and conflicted expressions of 20th century Middle Eastern modernity.