When the Art and Liberty group launched its activities in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the young Levon Boyadjian (later to become the famous Van-Leo) and his elder brother, Angelo, were jointly debuting their careers as photographers in Cairo. Van-Leo’s archive of photographic prints, negatives, and documents reveals much about the imaginative experimental channels he explored to crystallize his inner self. The artist’s self-portraiture—“auto-portraits,” as he called them—constituted the core of his surrealist production, and his photographic knowledge was enriched while he implemented these early self-portraits. Self-taught, he often returned to photography books, from which he learned techniques of double and triple exposure, juxtaposition, sandwiching, solarization, and cutouts and thus triggered his imagination and sense of exploration. This article traces the arc of Van-Leo’s early surrealist phase, which lasted about a decade that coincided with the beginning of his career in the 1940s. Other than the surrealist self-portraits, his photographic archive also contains a few hundred more works that are just as eccentric, although they rely more on disguise skills, shadows, and contrasts, or constitute false personifications of characters in society, rather than a surrealist approach. Although Van-Leo’s work was detached from what the Egyptian surrealist philosophies called for, he was, it seems, a surrealist by accident.

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