The Cindy Sherman of Egypt
It’s 1939 or 1940. A young man is dressed in a kimono. His lips are smeared with lipstick and he may or may not be wearing rouge (the photo is black and white). On the back of the photo, in light pencil, someone has scrawled the words “In the Chinese House.” Why Chinese? And who took the picture? The image is part of a collection I’ve been working on since 2002 around the life and times and work of the late Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo. Of course, Van Leo wasn’t his real name. Born Levon Boyadjian—cumbersome, right?—he rechristened himself sometime in the 1950s. “Van Leo” conjures certain Dutch masters, lapsed European royalty, or good breeding in general; it has the cadence of greatness.
Van Leo would never have called himself “the Cindy Sherman of Egypt,” but he took hundreds of untitled self-portraits. In these photos, his own body was putty—he would grow his beard, shave his head, even put on weight, while experimenting with costumes, props, and lighting. He appeared as a gangster or prisoner; as Jesus Christ, the Wolf Man, or Zorro. In one he has the mien of a young Vladimir Lenin; another evokes The Thief of Baghdad. In yet others, he’s in drag. “My father used to get very angry,” he once said. “He’d tell me: ‘Did you make the studio for yourself or for the customer? Stop making photos of yourself!’”
In the archive, there’s a little flipbook with dozens of these postcard-sized self-portraits pasted in. And yet the bulk of the self-portraits had never been printed at all. What purpose did they serve in the first place? Did they appeal to his vanity? Were they byproducts of his efforts to hone his craft? Samples to show customers? Flights of fancy? It’s impossible to say. The elaborate masks Van Leo wore, one after another, were less transformative than obfuscatory. They open a door to delirious wonders, but they don’t give us the key.
Van Leo stopped taking photographs in 1998. And yet, he had really stopped decades before, with the advent of color film. Color had sullied the cool elegance of black and white, he would stubbornly intone. It was the opposite of progress. A modern pestilence, it showed people as they really were: garish, uncultivated, base. It was as if the angel of history had propelled the photographer, against his will, into an awful tacky present. Van Leo’s was a story of betrayal—by God, Egypt, technology, style. About the pernicious effects of color film, he remained agitated until the end. About this, and so many other things.