Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Look into the Camera

Man and His Shadow


Little Girl by VL



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Doria Shafik was a leader of the feminist movement in Egypt in the 40s. Posted by Picasa

Sad Face

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Girl by Van Leo

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Mariam Fakheldine. Actress. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Greek Girl By Van Leo

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English Girl by Van Leo

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Cow Girl By Van Leo

Little Egyptian girl playing cow girls. She later became a famous actress (Sherihane) Posted by Picasa

Greek-Armenian Girl By Van Leo

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Portuguese Girl By Van Leo

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Armenian Girl By Van Leo

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Une Autre Fille

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Egyptian Girl By Van Leo

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Italian Girl by Van Leo

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Another GIrl by Van Leo

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Greek Girl By Van Leo

Note on the back of the picture: Miss Stasia-Damascus of Alexandria. Posted by Picasa

Van Leo Begins

"A young boy peers over the railings of a ship as it sails across the Bosphorus. Istanbul, fading into the late afternoon sun reflected from the sea, is no more substantial than a stage set. The city is a mere trick of the light. There is a smell of salt in the air. A lock of hair falls across the boy's forehead and...click, a picture." ---Catalogue article by Nigel Rayan

It was 1921. What the 4 year old Leon Boyadjian, and his brother and sister Angelo and Alice, were leaving behind is not the Istanbul of light most people know. What they are leaving behind is a history of persecution for the Armenian community in Turkey that had ended in a massacre, which their parents had known and survived. The ship was sailing for Egypt, where he would live for the rest of his life.

Indeed, his family bought a house in Cairo and it was in that house that he died. At school he was undistinguished. He finished with difficulty and dropped out of college as soon as he entered it. He then started practicing at a shop called "Studio Venus". Soon, his boss fired him, he was afraid he would become more important than him.

In 1940 his father offered him a camera. A contraption made of wood, copper and leather, he used nothing else for the rest of his life. At first he would develop the pictures with his brother in their bathroom.

As of 1947 he had his own studio and he became Van Leo. Van Leo was short, his manneres were very precious. He was someone you could never ask a personal question. Van Leo's personality, like his photography, was all about the surface. A surface that needed to be saved. Van Leo used to say "You must have your portrait made at least once every ten years, to know how you looked."

This was a bit of a strange thing to say. Most of his pictures were heavily retouched, the film he used was designed especially to allow him to retouch the picture in total freedome. What the pictures represented was not the subject's public persona, not their character, not their exact looks, they represented Van Leo's sensibility. When you look at a Van Leo picture, you see the world through his eyes. You live in Van Leo's world. And his world was the world of glamour, of black and white film stars. It was the world of refined manners where he would always be Monsieur Van Leo, with whome you would exchange a few polite words before he took your picture, in his mysterious ways. I wonder what place Leon Boyadjian had in Van Leo's world.

Van Leo made 400 self portraits. In each and every one he would have a different persona. He would be a very old man with a big white beard, a prisoner with a number across his chest, he would be Jesus Christ, or a theif or a dead man.. "What distinguished Van-Leo's work was a natural flair for flattering portraiture, together with a strong sense of dramatic impact. Depending on the aesthetics of the sitter, each portrait was turned into an iconic creation. Unwanted lines disappeared, light and shadow interplayed on the face, shadows were accentuated, until all that remained in the portrait was compelling charm, romance, and excitement". ---another Catalogue article by Fatma Basiouni

This - charm romance and excitement - is all Van Leo wanted to see. It is the abstraction he made of life. I like to think he lived in a black and white movie of his own, made real only by his pictures. Van Leo says that photography is dead. When he was asked if he would change his life if he had the chance to go back, he said he would change it and not be a photographer. Mainly, he says, its because now people want large portraits only of dead people. A few days before he died, Van Leo threw a dinner for his friends. As the last of them were leaving he said to them from his couch, "Remember, there will never be another Van Leo."

Who is Van Leo

In 1998, when his health deteriorated and he donated his studio to the American University of Cairo, he moved back to his familie's house, where he was born and had grown up. He had never married, his brother Angelo was living in Paris and sister Alice in Canada. He was the only one who stayed in Egypte.

At that time fans would come to visit him in numbers. It was customary for them to wait 5 minutes for him to shuffle to the door. The same went for phone calls, you were supposed to let the phone ring for at least a minute if you wanted him to answer. When you enter the house, you are overwhelmed by the smell of mothballs. The decor is from another time: Old gramaphone, art deco sofas and chairs, black and white television. Everything was firmly circa 1947.

Still everyone was shocked by the beauty of that house, the sharp red of the chairs and the baby blue leather couches, the game of shadows. As for his friends, he would only receive them on appointment, respectful of the manners of his old times. They would always receive his trademark, tea along with chocolate covered prunes. Dinner at his place would be accompanied with beaujolais, and the radio playing old Dalida songs. Conversation would move from Armenian to French to English to Arabic to Turkish and Back.

His only companion in his late age was his page, Ahmed from Cote d'Ivoire. Over time they had become close friends. He always complained how Ahmed was lazy.

His house was also filled with stories. He would show his frinds his adress book. The names were impressive. A " Gentlemen's " section with the phone numbers of Carry Grant, Rushdie Abaza, Fareed el Atrash, etc. A " Ladies' " section with the phone numbers of Ingrid Bergmann, Catherine Hepburn, So'ad Hosni, Mervat Amine, etc. Except for one or two names, they were all dead.

Other stories could be found in his bedroom where he kept two boxes. One filled with photographs to which he was personally attached and the other with old letters. The letters, owing to his eccentric looks maybe, were mostly love letters. They were filled with absurdly dramatic love declarations. Inseparable love and devotion forever: Drury Smith from Southe Africa, Hilda and Gisella from Germany, Ursula from swizerland and Maryse from France.

There is also Raga Serag from Egypte with whome he was linked for 17 years. They could not marry because of their different religions. As for the photo box. On the back of each photo there would be a story written with a pencil. One is a beautiful Egyptian girl, on the back there is a shaky handwritting "Elham Zaki, She wanted to be a star" -never became one. Another one is this Egyptian lady who entered his shop and in total self confidence and in perfect french she asked him to do a series of 12 shots of her. In each one she would take off one piece of clothes and the last one would be her wearing nothing but a big white baloone.

This Blog

This blog is a tribute to Van Leo. Unique and widely celebrated photographer of the 20th century. Here you can find the photos he made of many celebrities, and some notes about his life.