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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

From Cairo to L.A.: Van-Leo’s Photo Exhibit Erases Differences Between East and West

Updated: Aug 6, 2023



His photographs of Egyptian cinema giant Omar Sharif and other actors popularized his name. Van-Leo would make each sitter, whether a celebrity or not, feel like a star while he tipped their heads, arranged props and adjusted lighting for a theatrical look in his Cairo studio.

“The combination of Hollywood-style glamor, romanticism, and sentimentality with electric eroticism gave Van-Leo’s portraits a truly artistic dimension that went beyond the scope of studio portraiture,” according to Great Egypt: Exploring the Time Period, 1805-1952.

Becoming Van Leo introduces the world to the iconic photographer. It is on exhibit at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from July 15 to November 5, 2023, according to the museum. Hammer organized the show with the collaboration of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at The American University in Cairo, to which Van-Leo bequeathed his work. The Arab Image Foundation in Beirut has provided additional support. Negar Azimi, writer and editor, curated the exhibit. Her work has appeared in Artforum, The New Yorker, The New York Times and elsewhere.

“It is extraordinary to have access to not only an artist’s work but also his ‘life scraps,’ which is to say the tremendous well of ephemera that Van-Leo amassed and kept, from letters to business cards to childhood mementos,” Azimi told The American University in Cairo (AUC). “Van -Leo was a complicated, compelling artist who, in many ways, was ahead of his time. His work belies facile distinctions between art and craft, East and West.”

On the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday, more than 150 of Van-Leo’s photographs were on exhibit at the Tahrir Cultural Center of the American University in Cairo from November 20, 2021 to February 20, 2022. Along with his photographs, some never before seen, are his art deco desk and the platform upon which he posed his models.


Ola Seif in Van-Leo: The Reluctant Surrealist (2018) says that his adopted name reflected his admiration of the painter, Vincent Van Gogh. (Self-portrait on January 24, 1946)


Aside from his commercial work, Van-Leo (1921-2002) also created a vast body of experimental self-portraits that flirted with notions of identity, sexuality, and photography itself. Great Egypt writes:

Many of his self-portraits "represent a character inspired from films, theater, crime novels, news and dreams. In their pastiche-like approach, they predate Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Movie Stills (self-portraits of women in films in the 1950s and 1960s) by some 30 years.”


Self-portrait on January 8, 1945


Self-portrait on November 1, 1942


Ultimately, his self-portraits – 300 to 400 -- are his most celebrated works. Barry Iverson, a friend and fellow photographer, says in Van Leo: Master of Light and Shadows:

“Driven by curiosity and vanity, the best of his introspective work was done between 1942 and 1944, while he was still young and good-looking. He explored existential topics, including his own 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 identities including that of Jesus, a beggar, a woman, a WW II pilot, a cowboy, a robber, and a Saudi sheik.


"He explored existential topics, including his own death in the montage titled No Escape From Death."


“Van-Leo also had a considerable collection of nudes, where he explored sensuality and the female body using his trademark Hollywood-style lighting. However, in the 1980s, as Egyptian society became more religiously conservative following President Anwar Sadat’s assassination, the photographer destroyed much of the negatives and prints in this collection by burning them in his oven, out of fear that they would fall into the wrong hands.”

An Armenian, Van-Leo, whose birth name was Levon Alexander Boyadjian, and his family fled genocide in the Ottoman Empire for Egypt when he was a child in the 1920s, according to Public Radio of Armenia (December 13). At 16, Hollywood postcards, which he collected, fascinated him. Great Egypt writes:

“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 later incorporate into his own work.”

He apprenticed with a commercial studio photographer and, then, attended AUC in 1939 and 1940 before withdrawing and resuming his internship. He was optimistic about his future in photography, which was becoming a lucrative business in Egypt due to the influx of foreigners at the start of World War II. The young man approached his older brother, Angelo, who was working for the British Army, with a business proposition.

In 1941, he and Angelo opened their own studio in the living room of their family’s downtown Cairo family apartment. Their father, Alexander Boyadjian, gave them some of the equipment, including a 254 mm x 254 mm (10 inch x10 inch) large-format camera, which would remain Van-Leo’s primary camera until his retirement in 1998, writes Barry Iverson. The large-format camera would allow him to blow up photographs, even to poster and billboard size, and not sacrifice quality. During their six-year partnership, all the prints bore Angelo’s name though most were taken by Van-Leo. Then, Angelo married a Frenchwoman and moved to Paris, where he opened a studio.

In 1947, Levon established his own studio, first named Metro Studio and, later, Studio Van-Leo, the name by which he would thereafter be known. Iverson says that Levon's adoptive name was “a play on words of his name Levon’. Ola Seif in Van-Leo: The Reluctant Surrealist (2018) says that his new name reflected his admiration of the painter, Van Gogh. Seif writes:

“Constantly experimenting, Van-Leo treated artists’ self-portraits as testing grounds for new set-ups and photographic techniques including solarization, use of glass shields and filters, sandwiched negatives, multiple exposures, and creative lighting effects.”


The heavy shades of black and the moody tones represent what devoted readers know about Taha Hussein, “the Dean of Arabic Literature”, who was also blind. Van-Leo said: “The inspiration was from the heart. I saw the dark glasses, and I already understood that he was a famous personality. I started to play with the lights, and it came out like this.”


Prominent for much of the middle of the 20th century, the fortunes of Van-Leo’s studio paralleled the changes in Egypt’s society and economy, downtown Cairo, and the photography profession as well as his declining health and increasing age, writes AUC.

In his later years, however, Van-Leo attracted renewed attention. In 2000, the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, an organization dedicated to the preservation of old photographs of the Middle East, nominated him for the Prince Claus Award, which honors individuals and organizations for their progressive approach to culture and development. Van-Leo won the Dutch award.

Since Van-Leo’s death at 80 of a heart attack in 2002, his work has gained attention through books, articles, and exhibitions, including one at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 2018. He bequeathed his work to the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at AUC at the encouragement of his friend, Barry Iverson. A Cairo resident, Iverson was Time magazine’s photographer in the Middle East for 25 years.

The Van-Leo Photograph Collection consists of 12,000 prints and 13,000 photographic negatives from the 1930s to the 1990s.


South African dancer, Teddy Lane, has Vaseline on his cheeks and forehead, and a black velvet cloth behind his head to accentuate his face, blond hair, and blue eyes. Van-Leo said: “You must profit when you see such beauty. You must take pictures for yourself, from your inspiration, not just what the client wants.”


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