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Armenian – Egyptian Photographer Dies


Filed at 12:19 p.m. ET

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — Van Leo, a master photographer whose glamorous portraits gave Egypt’s beggars, strippers and elite the look of Hollywood film stars, has died of a heart attack. He was 80.

Van Leo died Monday at his home in Cairo and was buried Tuesday in the Armenian Cemetery in a northern suburb.

Although his real name was Levon Boyadijian, the artist chose to sign his name “Van Leo” in the bottom-right corner of his works.

In his heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, Van Leo brought friends, beggars, strippers, laborers and intellectuals into his studio and photographed them using harsh, dramatic lighting techniques.

He also took hundreds of self portraits disguised as gangster, prisoner, sailor, aviator, film director, and even Jesus Christ.

“Photography is visions,” Van Leo told The Associated Press last year. “You dream something, you can make it appear in a photo.”

Frail health forced him into retirement several years ago. His last photographic subjects were American photographer Barry Iverson and his wife, Nihal Tamraz.

“Van Leo was a master artist and arguably the best portrait photographer to ever come out of Cairo,” Iverson said Tuesday.

Iverson coaxed Van Leo to take his giant collection of portraits from storage and give them to the American University in Cairo. Van Leo’s donation included 19,000 photographs, 16,000 negatives and piles of art books, Hollywood magazines and postcards from which he borrowed lighting techniques and poses.

Van Leo fled with his Armenian family from Turkey, his birthplace, to Cairo in 1924. There he became fascinated with photography; and in 1940, he dropped out of college to become an unpaid portrait studio apprentice. He later opened his own studio in the family’s house.

Nudes were among the thousands of photos Van Leo took. He said he burned hundreds of them in the 1990s “because, you know, there are terrorists,” referring to Islamic extremists.

Van Leo never married and had no children. He is survived by an older brother, Angelo, who lives in Paris; and a sister, Alice, who lives in Calgary, Canada.

A selection of Van Leo’s work will be shown in a monthlong exhibition — called “Temptation” — opening April 9 at the French Cultural Center in downtown Cairo.

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