Van Leo


Van Leo

A Hidden Gem of the Nile

Text: Zareh-Sevag Sarkissian


“An Armenian can be found in all four corners of the world.” This adage has been heard by many Armenians at least once in their lives.

It could be argued that the most impactful Armenian diaspora wave was found in the Arab World mostly centred around the Levant. The argument has solid ground because of the many contributions and unique improvements they gave to their relative host countries, of which one of the most significant was Egypt. 

Great names even in the likes of famous caricaturist Alexander Saroukhan can be easily forgotten, albeit not all renowned people share that fate. A hidden giant of his field who was based and operated out of his studio in Alexandria, Egypt was the “Man Ray of Egypt” Van Leo.


Early life

Levon Boyadjian was born in Jihane, Turkey, on November 20, 1921. He was the youngest of three children of Alexandre and Pirouz Boyadjian, Armenian emigres whose family name roughly translates to “son of one who paints.” Heavily distraught and unmoored like many Armenians following the genocide, they were forced to emigrate for good.

In 1925, the couple moved to Alexandria, Egypt, and then on to Zagazig, a medium-sized town on the Nile Delta. The Boyadjians eventually settled in Cairo, landing on what was then Avenue Fouad, an elegant thoroughfare that extended from the manicured topiary of the Ezbekieh Gardens to the Egyptian High Court of Justice. 

Finding his Passion

As a teenager, young Levon interned at Studio Venus, one of the dozens of photography studios run by Armenians in that city owned by a man named Arakel Artinian. Baseless rumours later spread that Levon was pushed out of Studio Venus when the owner began to feel threatened by his young apprentice’s precociousness.

In truth, Artinian was fond of Levon and saw potential in him and the latter was simply finishing his secondary studies in 1939. He then enrolled at the American University in Cairo, only to withdraw a year later and resume his apprenticeship at Studio Venus. It was during this time he decided that photography would be his future.

Hollywood was a great inspiration to the young Levon, exhibited through the postcards of famous actors which he collected. He was drawn to the dramatic side lighting that produced deep shadows, the careful positioning of the hands, the well-chosen props, and the backgrounds, all of which he would absorb into his later work.

Between 1939 and 1944, Van Leo took hundreds of untitled self-portraits, assuming myriad personae somewhat like the Cindy Sherman of Egypt. In these portraits, his own body was clay: he would grow his beard, shave his head, and even put on weight while experimenting with costumes, props, and lighting. Driven by curiosity and vanity, the best of his introspective work was done during this time between 1942 and 1944, while he was still young and handsome.

Van Leo explored existential topics including his death in the montage titled “No Escape from Death.” These self-studies also show a more playful side of his personality as in many of the images he took on different characters including that of Jesus of Nazareth, a beggar, a woman, a WWII aviator, a western cowboy, a robber, and a Saudi sheikh. 

He spared no expense in these by using 18×24 cm sheet film, which his father, Alexandre Boyadjian, argued was a foolish splurge. Nonetheless, self-indulgence paid off as it has resulted in a unique collection of self-portraits, the scope of which is unrivalled in the photo world at large.


Humble Beginning

There were two photographers in the Boyadjian household. When Levon and his brother were open for business in the family apartment in 1941, they named it Studio Angelo, in homage to the chatty older brother. To further help his sons launch their business, Alexandre offered some of the equipment including the mammoth 10×10 inch large format camera, which would remain Van Leo’s primary camera until he retired in 1998.

The pair’s first customers were entertainers passing through Cairo during the Second World War who traded glamour shots for free advertising space in local playbills. From the beginning, however, Angelo was a gregarious, gambling, and womanising fellow who was the Dionysus to Levon’s bashful Apollo. While the creative partnership might have appeared happy from a distance, in truth, the two couldn’t have been farther apart.

In 1947, the brotherly collaboration unsurprisingly fell apart, and Levon ventured out on his own. He set up shop in a large space taken a few blocks from his family home. Leo opened his new premises at Studio Metro. He purchased the portrait studio Metro, located at 7 Fuad I Avenue from Kourken Yegorian, another photographer who had left Egypt for Armenia. Along with where he worked until the end of his professional life, the purchase included the necessary equipment and furniture. Studio Metro would be later renamed “Studio Van Leo” by Boyadjian, in 1955.

Artistry and Renown

It was there, at the six-room Studio Metro, that Levon Boyadjian became Van Leo, celebrity maker and star. The name “Van Leo” was a play on words of his own name, Levon, yet it invoked the image of certain Dutch masters, lapsed European royalty, and good breeding in general. It had the cadence of greatness. 

Whilst still establishing himself, Van Leo took portraits of performers for free, in return for having his studio name distinctly advertised on images used for productions. One of Van’s early customers was an aspiring actor by the name of Rushdy Abaza with a day job at the Union-Vie French insurance company, located in Van Leo’s building. 

In need of a portfolio to show directors, Abaza went to Van Leo to have his portrait taken. This picture was Abaza’s ticket to his first minor roles, but even when he became a superstar of Egyptian cinema, he never forgot the photographer who helped him achieve fame. Abaza spread the word and Van Leo became the entertainment industry’s most cherished photographer. The likes of Omar Sharif, Dalida, Ragaa Mohamed Serag, Nelly Mazloum, Berlenti Abdul Hamid, Farid al-Atrash, and many more notable foreigners and Egyptians alike all had their photos taken by him at a certain point in time.


Writer Taha Hussein (1889-1973)                                            Film actor Rushdy Abaza (1926-1980)                          Film actor Omar Sharif (1932-2015)


Although he had to adapt to market demands to survive, gaining wealth was never what drove Van Leo. His true passion was his art as announced on his business card, which read “Van Leo-Art Photographer.” 

Van Leo was a stoic in every sense of the word; in that he built a life and name around being a diligent worker and doing everything himself. He had no secretary to usher in clients, no accountant to maintain the books, no lab assistant to process his film, no helper to lift his heavy wooden studio camera, and not even a studio assistant to change light positions. Van also never kept his door open to attract business, dissimilar to other studio owners. Clients had to either ring the doorbell or have an appointment set up to walk in.

It was by following these austere work ethics and the profound knowledge of his craft that Van Leo created his gigantic portfolio of hundreds of thousands of images, most of which were portraits. Van acknowledged his best works were made when customers gave him full control over the photo shoot and a great example of a trusting and cooperative client was Taha Hussein, one of Egypt’s most famous writers who also happened to be blind. 

“The inspiration was from my heart: – I saw the dark eyeglasses, and I already understood that he was a famous personality. I started to play with the lights, and it came out like this one.” Van Leo’s shot was the best portrait ever taken of Hussein. To Hussein’s Egyptian fans, his picture with the heavy shades of black and moody tones represented a lot of what they knew and loved about their esteemed writer.

Relative Decline and Later Life

Despite fluctuations in his career that came about from changes in Egyptian politics and society and the commercialization of photography, Van Leo always strove to maintain high standards and remain faithful to his craft. 

During the first decade after 1952, the year when the pan-Arab nationalist Free Officers Movement led a coup d’état against King Farouk of Egypt and took control, Van Leo managed to keep his business afloat. Unfortunately, his regular clientele largely dried out as it was mostly foreigners and the old Egyptian elite who fled the country. Out of necessity, he had to adapt by taking passport pictures, as well as wedding and family portraits.

Van Leo had a considerable collection of nudes where he explored sensuality and the female body using his trademark Hollywood-style lighting. However in the 1980s, Egyptian society grew more religiously conservative and he had to sacrifice much of the negatives and prints in this collection by burning them, out of fear that they would fall into the wrong hands.

As though that did not pain him enough, the 1980s was when colour was newly introduced to the country. This change in the medium tormented him and had an impact on his work quality who as a purist saw black and white as the only possible means of artistic expression. 

Fortunately for him, he bounced back in the 1990s when he was rediscovered mainly by tourists and foreign residents seeking retro portraits. He resumed his cherished art form and, in a way, came back full circle from his heydays in the 1940s and 50s. There was also renewed demand for the classic prints of Taha Hussein, Omar Sherif, Dalida, and others.

On January 24, 1998, Van Leo took his last portrait, which was of TIME Magazine photographer Barry Iverson and his wife Nihal. Leo announced the closure of the studio marking the end of an era. In April 1998, he donated his entire archive to the American University of Cairo, a grand gesture motivated by passion as he wanted his photos always displayed and not stowed away like a museum piece.

He decided at the prompting of his friend Barry Iverson to donate his entire corpus of work and equipment to the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the American University in Cairo, which today still houses “The Van Leo Collection”. In March 2002, then 80 years of age, Levon Boyadjian passed away at his apartment in Cairo marking the end of an era.

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