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Van Leo (Egypt)
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Van Leo, Cherihan, Cairo, 1976
Courtesy of the American University, Cairo

Van Leo was able to make ordinary people into film stars. In his studio in Cairo he sometimes took hours in order to impart an aura of glamour to his subjects. It was not the rendering of reality which was his goal, but the creation of the ultimate illusion. This made Van Leo the most popular photographer in Egypt.

Van Leo, born in Turkey in 1921 as Leon Boyadjian, emigrated to Egypt at an early age with his Armenian parents. They settled in Cairo, a cosmopolitan city under British control, with a lively entertainment scene and a large international community.

His fascination with photography and Hollywood stars led to Van Leo giving up his studies at the American university in Cairo and going to work as an assistant in a photo studio. When war broke out in 1940 and many military men wanted to send home a photo portrait, he seized his chance. Together with his brother he started a portrait studio in the artistic neighbourhood of Cairo, which thanks to Van Leo's talent quickly became a success.

Van Leo's clientele consisted of a mix of solders, performers, strippers and intellectuals. All wanted to appear as striking as possible in the photographic image, and it was precisely in that which Van Leo excelled. To achieve the desired result he worked with artificial light and shadow effects, rubbed Vaseline into the skin and used mirrors to create spots of light. If the image was still not perfect, Van Leo had no hesitation about retouching it.

In the 1940s and '50s Van Leo developed into the society photographer of Egypt. The photographer-gentleman threw himself into the nightlife and kept a range of mistresses. One sitter after another took their place in his portrait studio, from intellectuals like Taha Hussein to film actor Omar Sharif. But Van Leo preferred to work with unknown models whom he could transform into his favourite Hollywood stars, such as Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor, without constraints of time or external interference.

With the end of British domination in 1952 the cosmopolitan life of Cairo also shut down. It became increasingly difficult for Van Leo to make his suggestive, Western oriented photographs. Many artists and photographers, including Van Leo's brother, left for Europe. Van Leo himself decided to remain. He increasingly withdrew into his studio, the furnishings of which would continue as reminders of the flamboyant, pre-revolutionary Cairo.

Without an Egyptian upper class, there was little left for Van Leo to photograph. Out of fear for Islamic fundamentalists he burned his extensive collection of nudes. But his fame increased beyond the borders of Egypt. There followed exhibitions in countries such as France, Germany and Switzerland, and in 2000 he received the prestigious Prince Claus Award for his oeuvre.

Later that year Van Leo died, at the age of eighty. According to papers around the world, with his death the glamour era of Cairo was definitively over.

Courtesy Barry Iverson (USA/Egypt) / The American University in Cairo (Egypt)