Cairo: Second Glances


Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt
Sept 29 – Oct 5, 2005

An American University in Cairo exhibition presents rare photographs
from the collections of KAC Creswell and Van Leo. Amina Elbendary

For AUCians, Creswell is a special collection of books, or a library.

For historians and specialists in Islamic architecture worldwide,
Creswell is a main reference. To check Creswell is to look up what KAC
Creswell had to say about a particular monument in one of his published
works: Early Muslim Architecture (1931) or Muslim Architecture of Egypt
(1951). For artsy Cairenes, Van Leo is a late, eccentric photographer
of glamour shots. You say Van Leo and people in the know immediately
think of the photo of the famous belly-dancer Samia Gamal in action
and under spotlight. The exhibition currently on show at the American
University in Cairo’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library
(RBSCL) offers a tantalisingly-limited selection of photographs by
both Creswell and Van Leo.

The idea might seem strange at first glance. What on earth did
these two men have in common? Born in 1874, Sir Keppel Archibald
Cameron Creswell is one of the generation of traditional, British
Orientalists, a scholar of Islamic architecture, who lived in Cairo
for most of his adult life until 1974, shortly before his death. He
was professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at Fuad I University
(later Cairo University) until 1951 and at AUC from 1956 onwards,
and was active in the Comite de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art
Arabe. The photographs he took were part of his work documenting and
studying Islamic architecture.

Leon Boyadijan (Van Leo), on the other hand, is of a later
generation. Born in 1921, he was a Cairene Armenian who photographed
people — including celebrities — for a living. His photo collection
dates back to the 1940s; he shared a studio with his brother Angelo
until 1974 when he established his own studio where he continued to
work until his death in 2002. As Steven Urgola, AUC’s university
archivist, explained, Van Leo bequeathed a legacy of some 13,000
photographic negatives and 12,000 prints to AUC.

The current exhibition doesn’t delve much into the backgrounds of the
men, but as the archivist of the Creswell photographic collection and
the curator of the Creswell section of the exhibition, Simone Bass,
explains, “the idea was to show so far unseen images of the Van Leo
and Creswell collections and also to show the Creswell collection
in a new light not only as a document for the architectural history
of Cairo but also to show vignettes of social life in Islamic Cairo
from the 1920s to the 1940s.” Creswell documented the state of the
city walls before the clearance work undertaken by the Comite and in
these photos one often sees scenes of everyday life literally at the
margins; they are natural shots of unobserved Egyptians. One example
is of a group of pedestrians standing on the side of Bab al-Futuh,
obviously waiting for Creswell to finish his work before crossing
through the gateway; a little boy with them can’t stand still for
that long: he moves resulting in a double face. On the wall behind
the group is clearly legible graffiti reading: al-ikhwan al-muslimun :
du’at al-qur’an (The Muslim Brothers: Preachers of the Qur’an).

Out of some 10,000 photographs that the Creswell collection comprises,
at least about 400 show some aspect of city life — against their
taker’s wishes. Indeed in some photographs one finds signs of the
lengths to which Creswell went to remove the people from his shots
to get the best possible unobstructed view of a monument.

Sometimes people left traces in spite of Creswell’s best efforts. A
series of photographs of the interior of the mausoleum of Sultan Pasha
also suggest that the keeper had made his lodging in the mihrab :
one image shows a bed and personal belongings while the second shows
a perfectly orderly interior; brushstrokes are even visible on the
floor suggesting a recent sweep. “Creswell was not really interested
in people,” Bass muses, “for him people were only interesting as
patrons of monuments or as builders, but after this people should
stay away from a monument because anything else they could do would
only cause damage. He liked to see his buildings without people.”

A pioneer in photographing Islamic monuments in Cairo in the early
20th century, Creswell was particularly interested in early Muslim
and mediaeval architecture but his collection also includes Ottoman
buildings — contemporary urban architecture did not interest him
— and he often returned to the same monument after restoration to
document its altered state. Creswell’s photos “are a very important
source [for the history of art and architecture], and they become
more important as time passes”, explains George Scanlon, professor of
Islamic Art and Architecture at AUC, “because many of the monuments
have themselves disappeared and the ambiance around the monuments
has certainly been eclipsed.” Creswell also travelled widely in the
Arab and Muslim world and took his camera along: “His photographs
of cities like Samarra are of great importance today because these
centres are in the eye of the storm. There are even some from Iran
that are of interest because the monuments have changed so much today,”
adds Scanlon.

This is where the interest of the Creswell photographic collection
primarily lies. However, at the risk of sounding glib, the photos
can only be of use to scholars if they have access to them. AUC has
had the collection at least since 1956, when, on the eve of the
tripartite aggression, Creswell donated his collection of books,
notes and photographs to the university to ensure their safety. With
time the books have found a home in the RBSCL; little has been done —
yet — with the photographs, papers and notes.

More importantly, the photographs need first to be catalogued and
made accessible to scholars. “Getting all of this catalogued would
be more like a national endeavour,” says Scanlon, “now we are trying
desperately to raise money so that we can have all the photographs
properly catalogued and made more quickly available to the professional
public.” Indeed, as Bass explains, an 18-month project funded by
the Getty Foundation to catalogue and conserve the photographs alone
will come to an end in October 2005, at which point the catalogue —
though not the images themselves — will be available online. While
AUC Press, we are told, indicated an interest in publishing some of
the unpublished photographs, more work is needed to make full use
of them. In this age of digital technology, a digital archive should
seem the best possible option.

Van Leo, on the other hand, is known for his “artistic” photographs and
his glamour photographs of the rich and famous. The exhibition here
juxtaposes some of his recognisable glamour shots with other unknown
images of the same celebrities. It thus offers a curious insight into
the making of an image, and the manipulative role that the photographer
played in the process. Like many professional photographers, Van Leo
would usually take a series of photos in a particular session yet only
one would leave the studio. And it is rather jerking to see some of
the photos of celebrities that have become almost iconic placed in this
pluralistic context. Doria Shafik’s famous portrait has her all serious
and intellectual. To see another image of her as playful and smiling,
on display here, offers a more human idea of her character. Van Leo’s
prints also show how he artistically manipulated images to produce
the perfect photograph: cropping repeatedly, playing with light and
shadow, and sometimes hand-colouring the photo.

The exhibition, curated by Kristen Gresh, who also headed a cataloguing
project of the collection over the past year, also displays photos of
non-celebrities — the everyday kind of work at Van Leo’s studio. Since
many Cairenes and even foreign visitors went to his studio to get their
portraits or wedding photographs taken, Van Leo’s collection offers an
interesting insight into Cairo’s social history. The photos are mainly
of upper middle-class Cairenes who were not famous in their day, but
other less privileged faces were also snapped by him. On display is a
photograph of Van Leo’s own bawwab (doorman) which was part of a series
on Cairene bawwabs. Once can’t help wondering what conversation —
if any — the two men exchanged as the pose was taken. An endearing
series shows children posing in costumes, professional or national,
in a tradition that has all but disappeared from Cairo today. After
the revolution, for example, many children had their photos taken in
miniature army uniforms.

Although primarily a studio photographer, Van Leo’s collection does
include street scenes, among which is a series from the neighbourhood
of Muski. In contrast to Creswell’s focus on one particular monument
per photograph, Van Leo’s offer overviews of streets including the
tradesmen, buyers and sellers and children, yielding a rare insight
into “unposed” Cairene life.

Van Leo has so often been reduced — or elevated — to the status of
glamour photographer that it is refreshing to look at his photographs
from the point of view of social history. Yet it is an endeavour that
hasn’t quite borne fruit here; this sample only suggests possible
uses for the collection. But it might soon be easier to do things
with the Van Leo collection; a cataloguing project is well underway.

Over the past year the collection has been organised according to over
15 series or categories, and the photographic prints and negatives
have been rehoused in archival-quality polyester sleeves, albums,
and boxes. “In addition, detailed narrative descriptions and a list
of album and box contents have been prepared and are currently being
edited. Van-Leo’s personal papers (correspondence, business records,
magazine collections, etc.) have also been organised and are being
described,” explained Urgola. The catalogue will be available through
AUC’s library catalogue online later this year thus opening up numerous
possibilities to researchers.

This rather small exhibition is refreshing in that it tries to place
the photos of Creswell and Van Leo in a different light from the one
they are usually seen in. Creswell is often consigned to history of
architecture buffs that the uniqueness of his photographs of Cairo
is ignored. Similarly, Van Leo’s photos of non- celebrities, which
were by necessity the majority of his clients, are rarely placed in
the limelight. The change of perspective is exciting for the many
possibilities it suggests.

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