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Van LeoVan Leo Photographer
An Armenian Photographer in Cairo
What sort of a photographer was Van Leo? Why is his work important in the framework of the photography produced in the Middle East? And in that of a more general context?
Several critics have already ventured answers to the first of these questions: Van Leo’s photographs constitute an invaluable documentary record of Egyptian society over the last fifty years; moreover, they prove that someone, somewhere in the Arab world, was quite capable of making photography into a language, into an art. If you then consider these questions from a different standpoint, the thousands of portraits of men and women, the thousands of faces that Van Leo embedded like jewels in the settings of precious lights and artificial spaces, his four hundred and more self-portraits and the unusual open-air shots, landscapes and portraits "stolen" from the occasional figure of interest who happened along in front of his lens are unquestionably a collection of documents of an age and of a society that are both as fascinating as they are lost […], but also the expression of free research, rich in inventiveness, an unmistakable manifestation of a "style" – a term that is always found to be uniquely weak when used in reference to photography, albeit at least partly effective. Van Leo managed to establish a special rapport with his subject, based on his interpretation: in a certain sense, he had the tenacity to give shape to an independent genre, autonomous both of fashion photography […] and of "psychological" or naturalistic portraiture.
In other words, Van Leo’s act of interpretation transfigures, as well as being revealing. The care that he paid to details – not only on the set, the surroundings and the lighting, but also the angle of the shot, the pose, the expression and then the developing and touching up, which he never delegated to anyone else – demonstrates not only his visual, but also his manual ability and talent, comparable to a certain extent to that of a painter. And painting is a practice that Van Leo probably would not have disdained at all […], one to which he had actually always delegated the thorny question of colour in photography, keeping well away from colour photography, which he condemned out of hand and without appeal. Considering that he believed firmly that the nature of the photographic image was to be in black and white, perfectly in tune with the opinion of straight photographers and of the editors of Camera Work, it is worth noting that he made fairly regular use of an aquarellist to complete some of his prints with a coloured veil in the manner of nineteenth century painting. This explains why Van Leo’s works seem to cater for an anomalous taste, compared to the majority of the creations of European and American photographers at work at the same time, from the forties to the sixties of the last century: the colouring underscores the patina on objects, skin, lips and clothes, yet without simulating an improbable naturalism.
Van Leo certainly had a greater degree of tolerance for this double fiction than for colour photography’s often featureless pretence to represent reality. He actually seems to have taken a certain pleasure in these images’ excess of artificiality, in their somewhat passé dimension, the way they set themselves explicitly outside art, their sophistication, even, and their haute couture instead of photography’s pret à porter.
These water-coloured photographs very often have a dominant tone, a delicate atmosphere modulated in the shades of pink of the faces, the necks and the hands: all those parts of the body that are exposed to view. The "added value" sought by Van Leo was evidently one of decoration rather than of camouflage. As a matter of fact, these "painterly" images tend to bring out the "traditional" photographer in him, the one who was irritated by the sheer easiness of video, of the point-and-shoot and of colour film and also shocked by those of his peers who bowed to circumstances, choosing the most easily saleable subjects and sacrificing their art to mammon. It is no coincidence that Van Leo went against the grain in 1989, deciding to have his portraits of the singer Dalida water coloured at a time when black and white photography had already become something of a collector’s item: her face was touched up with such a heavy hand that all her wrinkles and the signs of the passage of time disappeared, making her look rather like a nineteenth century simulacrum. The result was a form of comeback on the part of the more elaborate, overdone style of photography: one in the face for the tatty look of the point-and-shoot.
Martina Corgnati A Photographer called Van Leo, (Skira, 2007)
Leon (Leovan) Boyadjian, known in art as "Van Leo", was born in Ceyhan, 43 km east of Adana, in Cilicia, on 20 November 1921. His family survived the terrible years of the Armenian genocide and deportation because it was protected by its privileged social position (the fact that his father worked for the German-owned Baghdad Railway Company saved him, as the Ottomans did not authorise the forced removal of managers and labourers working for their German ally).
The Boyadjian family stayed in Cilicia until 1924, when they emigrated to Egypt after the definitive consolidation of the post-war status quo left no margin of hope for an Armenian family to build a future. In those days, the Armenian community held a virtual monopoly of photography: it was from another Armenian, Varjabedian, that Leovan learned the rudiments of the trade, before developing on his technique working in the Venus studio belonging to one Artinian (another Armenian).
In 1941, Leovan opened his own photography studio in Cairo, inventing himself a nom de plume out of an anagram of his own name and starting to do studio portraits of Oriental Pashas, high society ladies, Lebanese businessmen, British officers stationed in Egypt and above all aspiring actresses and cabaret soubrettes dreaming of making the big time on stage or in the movies. This was also the time when he shot the imposing collection of 400 self-portraits in a variety of costumes and get-ups that constitute a unique body of photographic research that has no contemporary parallel anywhere else in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Van Leo’s style was inspired by Hollywood, his lights theatrical and sparkling: success was not long in coming. He photographed Omar Sharif, Fatma Rushdi Doria Shafik, Farid Al-Atrash, Taha Hussein and Dalila. Using refined printing techniques, he sometimes completed his images with a water colour patina, in the old style. His success continued unabated also after the 1952 revolution and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power, but the country’s farreaching cultural and political transformation and the disappearance of its characteristically cosmopolitan, demanding society gradually left the artist isolated and disillusioned. Even so, he kept on working until the nineties, although he unfortunately destroyed many dozens of nudes that had long become too risky in a country where fundamentalism was on the march.
In 1998, he accepted the American photographer Barry Iverson’s suggestion that he entrust all the prints and negatives still in his studio (some 10,000 in all) to the American University of Cairo, which is now exclusively responsible for curating them. Since then, several exhibitions have been devoted to his work in the Middle East and elsewhere. In 2000, he was the first photographer ever to receive the prestigious Royal Netherlands Prince Claus Prize: to mark this award, the Townhouse Gallery organised a major retrospective of his work. This launched an unstoppable process of reappraisal that is still in full swing today. But as Van Leo himself died on 18 March 2002, he was only able to enjoy the opening chords of this concerto orchestrated around his opus.
© Martina Corgnati (used with permission)