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6 July 2013

Studio Fouad, Beirut and Van-Leo, Cairo

Shortly after its creation in 1997, the Arab Image Foundation started collecting photographs from anonymous, amateur and professional photographers. The first two major collections gathered from studio photographers were those of Van-Leo in Cairo and Adib Ghorab in Beirut, both presented in this exhibition through a selection of hand-colored studio portraits.


Born in Jaffa, and exiled from Palestine in 1948, Adib and Fouad Bendali Ghorab settled in Lebanon where they were trained as photographers by their uncle. A few months later, they rented a small photographic studio in downtown Beirut. In 1954, they became the appointed photographers of the Oriental lodge for the freemasons and opened a larger studio in Accaoui, which was known as Studio Fouad. Over the years they became renowned for their hand-coloring portraits. In an interview given a year before his death in 1996, Fouad explained his approach: “the work of the photographer consists of controlling light and knowing how to reflect it. I mainly concentrate on essential features in the face, such as the eyes and mouth, which are major determinants of beauty in someone’s face. Then I work on details that are particular to the model’s face, and light the scene accordingly”.


Born in Ceyhan, Turkey, in 1921 as Levon Boyadjian, he moved with his family to Cairo, Egypt, in 1924. Over more than 50 years, Van-Leo took thousands of portraits of customers, friends, and acquaintances at large. Having opened his first studio with his brother, Angelo, in the living room of the family home, the two catered to entertainers stationed in Cairo during the Second World War. When the brothers parted ways in 1947, Van-Leo would move down the street to occupy the former Studio Metro, eventually changing its name to “Van-Leo: Art Photographer” and launching the practice for which he would come to be known.

Some of these portraits—like that of the singer Farid El Atrache lounging in his elaborate apartment, or the iconic entertainer Sherihane dressed as a cowgirl—were sensitively hand-colored. While Van-Leo insisted that he never used assistants, there is an ambiguity in the record as some have offered that he sent his photographs out of the studio to get colored. A few names have emerged, but like so much about his life and work, much rests in a glorious ambiguity.

The Arab Image Foundation’s members Karl Bassil and Negar Azimi are currently at work on a book and exhibition project about the late photographer’s life and work.

Zeina Arida and François Hébel, curators of the exhibition.

Exhibition venue: Espace Van Gogh, Rencontres d’Arles 2013.