By Mia Turner
Meeting Nourab Keropian in his studio in downtown Cairo is like stepping back in time. The dark coloured furniture dates back to the 1930s when his father was in charge. The walls have the yellow tint that comes with the passage of unpainted decades. Behind him, standing on a wooden tripod, is the wooden box camera – a real view camera–that he once used.
“I stopped using it 10 years ago because I couldn’t find the glass plated negatives anymore,” he says, wistfully, of a bygone technology. But along with the glass-plated negatives has gone the studio photography that gave him a steady income.
“It was a good business at one time. Everyone needed photos,” the 71-year-old photographer recalls, his eyes looking at the empty chairs and antique clock that now ticks away in rooms long since gone silent. Even wedding photos, a big business in Cairo, are no longer shot in studios.
“The traffic in Cairo is so bad these days that people don’t come to the studios but rather the photographers have to go to the wedding parties to take the pictures,” he adds.
Studio life has never been this slow. It was once touted as a good career and the Armenian-Egyptians were among the best.
Among the most celebrated was Van Leo, whose black and white portraits of Egypt’s starlets are today collectors’ items.
“Historically Armenian painters did the minimalist portraits so I guess it was natural that they became the photographers later on,” Keropian explains.
It was the Armenians who ranked as the artisans of Egypt. In addition to being the photographers, they were also the jewellers, engravers as well as the musicians and artists.
While many Armenians left the country in the 1940s, lured by promises of a better life in the Soviet Union, many like the Keropian family stayed.
An estimated 10,000 are currently still living in Egypt. Keropian continues to live where he grew up in downtown Cairo, near the studio and near the Armenian Church.
“Our food is now almost Oriental but among ourselves we still speak Armenian. Without our language, we are not Armenian,” he stresses of an ethnic group that has increasingly seen its traditions disappear.
In 1956 Nourab Keropian followed in the footsteps of his father, Jacob, who opened the Keropian Studio in the 1930s after having apprenticed under the celebrated court photographer, W Hanselman of Cairo’s Anglo-Swiss Studio. Hanselman was renowned for his images of King Fu’ad and Queen Farida and other members of the Egyptian royalty. It was the heyday of studio photography. Everyone wanted to be photographed and made to look celebrated and glamorous.
Business boomed with the arrival of the Second World War, as soldiers and expatriates poured into Cairo.
“The waiting room was full of clients,” boasts Keropian, pointing to the large outside reception area that today looks dusty and unused. “We were working 12-hour-days, with my father and I photographing while my sister touched up the photos,” he adds. “High Egyptian society came to the studio to have their photos taken. Actors like Mimi Gamal and Egypt’s politicians,” boasts Keropian, pointing to portraits on the wall covered with black and white images of the country’s rich and famous.
The boom was short-lived. In 1952 a military coup deposed the monarchy and forced the British troops to leave. The July revolution, which brought Abdel Nasser to power, marked the end of Egypt’s flamboyant cosmopolitan years. Many artists and photographers fled abroad, fearing the revolution would curtail their work. Keropian managed to keep his business going. Indeed, it is his photograph of President Nasser which perhaps won him the most kudos. Taken while the Egyptian leader was visiting an exhibition in downtown Cairo, Keropian turned it into a portrait that was reproduced and hung throughout the country. But the success of the revolution did not create an economy that could support the luxury of studio photography. Business floundered and never recovered.
Today, Keropian only comes in the mornings, mostly for old clients who want copies of old photos.The digital age has also impacted what little business comes through the studio’s doors. Keropian has painfully tried to understand the new form. “Digital produces good quality but is not artistic,” he complains. “Moreover, traditional photography is in my blood,” he adds.
With rents in downtown Cairo still low and controlled by the government, Keropian can afford to keep the studio open. But unmarried and with no one to inherit the family business, he knows it will close on its own. He slowly thumbs through the mostly black and white photos he took nearly half a century ago, portraits of people now deceased and of street scenes no longer possible. “As long as God wishes, I will continue working in the studio,” he says.
But with the years, has also gone the inspiration of his work.
Source: "The National", Abu Dhabi, 16 June 2008