Saturday, March 18, 2006

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."

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