Explore the many faces of Van Leo at UCLA

Hammer Museum’s new exhibit parades a genius in “Becoming Van Leo.”

Photo of Van Leo Exhibit
Van Leo took an impressive amount of portraits throughout his time as an artist, experimenting with various techniques. His innovative photography styles, he pioneered original strategies. (Mateo Villalba-Mutis / Daily Trojan)

An artist’s canvas spans across time and space, creating stories from all different areas of life, culture and history. Armenian Egyptian studio photographer “Van Leo” created a name for himself doing just that in Cairo, which brought him recognition during the 20th century. The Hammer Museum at UCLA celebrates his work and life through its new exhibition “Becoming Van Leo,” running July 15 until Nov. 5, where visitors get a first-hand look at artifacts from his youth and many portraits never seen before.

The exhibit begins by taking the viewer on a journey through time with photographs of him and his family in Cairo, Egypt. Curator Negar Azimi designed the exhibit with a small flower-patterned room within the main exhibit room. The small room held photographs of his mother, artifacts from his youth and Egypt during his life. On the outside of the room, Azimi displays an array of his portraits and self-portraits, all in simplistic formations to invite the viewer to examine his photos more closely. The soft lighting of the exhibit compliments the white walls of the exhibit, so Van Leo’s portraits come to life as time capsules.

Van Leo was born in 1921 in Turkey as Levon Boyadjian. From youth, Boyadjian persisted in breaking the mold of any situation and artistic endeavor he would encounter. Boyadjian studied photography at the American University in Cairo, but he dropped out in 1941 to work with his brother, Angelo, in a studio. The exhibit includes his own writings from classes in early education, demonstrating a very outspoken and determined spirit in an early Van Leo. In an essay for his ethics class, he writes, “It is a man’s glory to be master of himself.” His ambition for fame and pursuit of his own style inspired him to create a studio space of his own where his pseudonym, “Van Leo,” was born.

Growing up, Van Leo was drawn to the black-and-white photography of Hollywood at the time, as emphasized in the exhibit. He would adopt these techniques and styles in his own work in the development of portraits in the Middle East, which would place his work in a gold mine. As the gallery explains, Egyptian cinema entered its golden age during the 1940s. Pictures of women and men of all backgrounds were shown at the exhibition, all with similar Hollywood-esque positioning and work with shadows. Soon enough, he would go on to take the portraits of notable names in Egyptian cinema, such as Omar Sharif, a famous Egyptian actor. 

When World War II started, it only inspired more of Van Leo’s art. The war called in lots of entertainers, actors and aristocrats for Van Leo to capture. For instance, the exhibit features a framed print of a bodybuilder and another of a woman in dramatic lighting, as though in a theatrical drama. These prints were most representative of Van Leo’s technique and distinct style.

He would often involve consistent but careful manipulation of lighting and framing, reminiscent of Hollywood headshots, that allow for the subject’s best features to shine in an elegant manner or appear as though they were taken from scenes in a film. His ability to produce portraits with cinematic techniques allowed for all individuals to shine as though each was a movie star.

Gabrielle Pryor, a museum visitor, expressed an appreciation for his work and originality. Pryor usually does not lean toward photography as a medium, but felt differently about this exhibit.

“[His work is] very focused,” she said. “It’s very intimate, too. I don’t know any of these people, they’re almost famous, but I feel like I’ve seen them before just because you can see who they want to be.”

Van Leo even took portraits of stars soon-to-be. The museum features a few portraits he captured of the famous Egyptian actress Sherihan when she was young. He would place her into different costumes, one print showing her in a cowgirl outfit in 1976. She would eventually grow up to be very popular and successful in Egyptian cinema. Van Leo captured his subjects in the light of fame, allowing each individual to shine.

Most important and symbolic of his work as an artist were the numerous self-portraits that Van Leo would produce. Like an actor contorting themselves physically to match the attributes of their characters, Van Leo would alter his physical appearance in many different ways in his self-portraits. He would grow out his beard, shave his head and even create costumes to appear like existing popular cinematic characters. For instance, a portrait of him at the exhibition demonstrates his portrayal of the fictional character Zorro from the movie “The Mask of Zorro” (1998).

The exhibit displays his portraits demonstrating the unison of his work and the ingenuity of his characterization. All his self-portraits would channel the same Hollywood black-and-white style as his other portraits, but each was unique in his technique and expression of identity.

Most striking of Van Leo’s work is his experimentation with his gender expression. In a few portraits displayed at the exhibit, Van Leo would be found wearing pearl earrings, rouge on his lips and even styling himself in over-the-shoulder garments. His experimentation was unique and especially controversial during his time as a known photographer in the 1940s to the 1960s.

As the world of photography utilized more color in the 1980s and beyond, Van Leo claimed color had “destroyed the cool elegance of black and white,” a quote the gallery features near the display of his work in color. He stayed true to his Hollywood-esque portraits, even with the emergence of new technology and art styles.

His more than 100 self-portraits, 12,000 prints and approximately 13,000 photographic negatives would remain as gems in time for Egyptian photography of the 1940s that demonstrates the power of art in challenging norms of expressing identity, beauty and culture.

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