Obituary - Download Now DOC by Levone


Leon Boyadjian (Van Leo)
By Nigel Ryan
Cairo 1939-45, and on to 1952, and even a little beyond: it is well-
ploughed territory. The divisions, regardless of the magnitude of unfolding
events, can come to seem surprisingly arbitrary, hopelessly so if your
reference is the mostly anecdotal accounts of the period that have
appeared sporadically in English over the past few decades. For Cairo had
somehow inherited the cosmopolitan veneer that beguiled earlier
generations of Alexandrian chroniclers: there were parties, and cocktails,
and staggeringly beautiful women in plunging evening gowns wearing
diamonds and flirting their way through endless evenings with a
nonchalance that can hardly be imagined by those whose diamonds are
paste. Or that, at least, is how it has come to seem. That this is not the
truth, and certainly not the whole truth, doesn't really matter: images are
thrown up and some of them stick.
Few have contributed as much to the fixing of that image than Leon
Boyadjian, who in 1947 opened the studio on Rue Fouad, now 26th of
July Street, from which he was to work for more than half a century. It
was there that Van Leo was born: earlier, from 1941 till the opening of his
own premises, he had worked with his brother, their prints jointly signed,
first Studio Metro, subsequently Studio Angelo.
Then studio photography was virtually an Armenian monopoly in Egypt:
the first of the studios to open, Lekegian, located conveniently close to the
Shepheard's Hotel, proved profitable, and soon others were seeking a
niche in the expanding market. Armand, Archak, Vartan, Alban all opened
premises between Qasr Al-Nil Street and Opera Square, though Van Leo's
own premises were, from the very beginning, intended to be different. The
reception area was designed by Angelo de Ritz, a painter and one of the
founders of the Egyptian surrealist group Art et liberté: it was modern, in
the utilitarian sense, and minimal, though there was more than a hint of the
theatrical in the incongruous hanging of maroon velvet drapes. An
awkward juxtaposition, this ultra modern, clean-lined aesthetic overlain by
suggestions of the stage and the movie theatre, and one that should have
alerted customers that what happened in the studio might not be as
straightforward as they initially supposed.
By 1950, three years after first opening, Van Leo was attracting a degree of
attention not normally accorded to the jobbing photographer: in Surrealisme de
l'esprit, an essay by Jacques Ovadia that appeared in the revue Je dis he is
described as "a fellow with a brilliant smile and lively eyes, bending over prints or
studying a profile, conjuring up the fascinating phantoms that people the most
beautiful of dreams."
Van Leo's occasional association with Art et liberté:, though, was hardly
the defining moment, and the work with which Ovadia's essay appears to
be dealing is mainly restricted to the mid- 1940s, to the Van Leo who
shaved his head for a series of multi-portraits refracted endlessly,
superimposed one on the other. A multiple image of someone who has
dressed down to dress up, who has shaved his head the better to show
what he is not. It is this, and not much more, that constitutes Van Leo the
sometime surrealist, it is a matter of props, of the dressing-up box, of not
just looking strange but looking unnatural.
Leon Boyadjian arrived in Cairo with his parents in the aftermath of
World War I, part of the great exodus of Armenians fleeing the heartlands
of the crumbling Ottoman state. His first encounter with the camera was to
take place in Zagazig, in 1928 or 1929: an Armenian photographer taking
a picture of an Armenian family, not long arrived. Years later the same
photographer would provide an introduction for Leon, then a disaffected
student at the American University in Cairo, to Studio Venus, on Qasr Al-
Nil Street, where he learned the nitty-gritty of the trade.
Van Leo's earliest forays as a professional photographer were to take place
in a Cairo whose population had been swollen not just by the influx of
refugees from war-torn Europe, but by the thousands of soldiers from all
corners of the British Empire that, by 1940, had become an unavoidable
feature of the city. Europe was at war, but for some in Cairo business was
booming. And in the wake of the soldiers came a plethora of cabarets,
revues, dancing troupes, many far from modest, a whole society of
entertainers selling respite from the war. They needed to advertise, and the
Boyadjian brothers offered free publicity shots in return for space in the
programme, a mutually beneficial arrangement since it brought to their
doors members of the audience, mostly soldiers, seeking souvenirs -- and
that meant, mostly, portraits of themselves.
By the time Van Leo moved to Rue Fouad, he had already built a
reputation as a portraitist and his customer base was expanding: alongside
the cabaret artists, British civil servants and soldiers arrived bigger fish,
rising stars such as Omar Sharif, first photographed by Van Leo in 1950,
and established stars such as Fatma Rushdi, who sat for her portrait in the
same year. It was in 1950, too, that Van Leo produced what has become
his most widely circulated image, the by- now iconic portrait of Taha
"You need," Van Leo told me when, in 1995 I arrived at his studio, "to
have your photograph taken every ten years, if only to know how you
It seemed, at the time, a remarkable conceit from a man who took pictures
that do not even purport to show how you look.
For more than half a century Van Leo pored over his negatives -- he used
always the widest available film -- recasting the images caught through the
lens. Lines he did not like were removed, shadows accentuated: the print
would be cropped, on occasion parts of the body removed and consigned
to oblivion.
Sitting for Van Leo could be a trifle unnerving. Met in the reception -- by
1995 the original ultra-modernity of the space had assumed a decidedly
retro veneer -- endless prints would be produced, to give the customer a
"sense of what is possible."
It was an odd selection of images, and no doubt tailored to whoever was
seeking a portrait. My selection included Van Leo's own favourite, a
portrait of Teddy Lane, a South African dancer, taken in 1944. Lane's face
had been covered in vaseline and then sprinkled with sand, the subject
then placed in a black velvet bag with only the head emerging from the
shadows. There was, too, a series of photographs of a Heliopolis
housewife, who had arrived wearing 18 articles of clothing and demanded
to be photographed 18 times, for each shot removing a garment until she
was naked. Doria Shafik smiled from beneath savagely plucked eye-
brows, Mohamed Abdel- Wahab from beneath an ill- considered wig with
which not even Van Leo could do much. Youssef El-Sebai, he told me,
arrived in 1953 for his portrait with four uniforms to change into. And all
the time, quietly producing yet more images from boxes, Van Leo would
watch until, his decision made, he would usher you into the studio proper,
to sit, initially in the dark, on a circular dias raised in the centre of the
floor. Behind the camera which his father had given him in 1941, he
would consider the arrangement, shuffling for lights, turning them on and
off, suggesting a slight adjustment of posture, admonishing you gently for
never having realised that the left was your best side. And this could
continue for hours. A week or more later you would be summoned by
telephone, to view just four images, one of which you could select. A
week after that and you would receive another telephone call, and told that
your print -- enlarged by now, and painstakingly doctored -- was ready for
collection. Van Leo retained the negatives.
Everything about a sitting for Van Leo appeared carefully contrived to
avoid even a hint of the spontaneous. Nothing could be left to chance:
among his thousands of prints are only a tiny number of outdoor scenes,
and when he came across a face that interested him, a street vendor, or a
beggar, they would be enjoined to come to the studio, where he could
better control his effects. No surprise, then, that it is Lane's photograph --
the most artificial of them all -- that Van Leo pronounced his favourite. No
surprise either that Taha Hussein should have been such a perfect subject -
- the photograph was the result of just two poses, and lit completely
naturally. What better model could Van Leo have wanted than a blind man
who chooses always to wear glasses. What else could he demand from a
subject beyond the subject not knowing what he looked like, let alone how
he may want to look?
To emphasise style is to slight content, which is why it is pointless to
search for character in Van Leo's portraits. He was never interested in
anything so ineffable as capturing the soul of his sitters: that would have
been a presumption, and he was a man with an old-fashioned sense of
"Why," he asked, a little disingenuously, after showing me the pictures of
the housewife, "do you think she wanted these photographs? Was perhaps
a lover leaving?"
After 50 years of taking the kind of photographs Van Leo took no one was
in a better position to know why she wanted the pictures: no one could
better understand the metaphor of life as theatre, of Being-as-playing-a-
Role. And if many of Van Leo's images seem to dove-tail into the glamour
genre, it is because Van Leo early understood that glamour is prefaced on
the essential not-thereness of the subject.
For the last two years of his life Van Leo was too frail to continue working
in his studio and had been more or less housebound. The last decade of his
life, though, brought rewards in terms of increasing recognition, largely on
the back of public exhibitions of his work, both in Egypt and abroad,
culminating in the award of the Prince Claus Fund prize in 2000.
Leon Boyadjian, b Jihane, Turkey, 1922; died Cairo, 18 March, 2002

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