Monday, June 23, 2008

Picture This: Van Leo

Cabaret Dancer, 1940s
Fragments of old Cairo remain: the crumbling buildings that line the downtown streets, the faded cafés, the antique shops in backstreets full of Déco light fixtures and chipped sets of cocktail glasses.

And in the photographs of the master of Egyptian portrait photos, Van Leo.

Self Portrait

In the photographs of Van Leo, old Cairo comes alive - the Egypt of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when it was a cosmpolitan country at the center of Arabic culture, film, finance, and intrigue, home to thriving commnities of Armenians, Greeks, Italians, English, French (not to mention the tens of thousands of Egyptian Jews whose absence today is a unspoken one).

He was born Leon Boyadjian, and as late as the turn of the century was a presence on the Cairo scene. One of the great proofs of my idiocy is not having been photographed by Van Leo while I lived here...

He is remembered for his intense, saturnine self portraits:

Which did, sometimes, show more than a flash of humor - as here, pictured as a gaucho:

He photographed le tout Egypte, people like intellectual and feminist (and possessor of the most expressive eyebrows this side of Miss Crawford) Doria Shafik:

But he was somehow most at home in the city's demi-monde, photographing the actresses, dancers, and hangers-on who filled the nightclubs and waited for their Big Chance:

He worked, as a studio and movie photographer, mostly unheralded outside Egypt, for his whole long life. He even, during her time in Cairo working with Youssef Chahine, photographed Dalida:

And who could ask for more than that?

There has been something of a renaissance in interest in Van Leo of late, as attested by this gallery with essay tributes from the American University in Cairo, as well as this gallery of almost demented glamour focusing on his entertainment photos.

1 comment:

  1. His self-portraits are remarkably undated and contemporary-looking; his other subjects are really evocative of their respective periods. Very interesting stuff!