The people behind the lens: Lehnert and Landrock

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 18 Mar 2012

Ahram Online discovers the story of one of Cairo's most historic bookshops, and the renowned photographic collection behind it

Tahrir square and the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, c1975. Egyptian postcard, photo and copyright reserved

"They stopped being commercial after a while. Nobody wanted black and white. Everybody wanted colour, hence no one was longer interested in our photos. It wasn’t until much later, when I was working with my father, that I discovered a cubic metre of glass plates and as much dust, and that was the revival of the collection," remembered Edouard Lambelet, Landrock's grandson and current owner of the celebrated Lehnert and Landrock bookshop in downtown Cairo.

The famous friends and business partners dazzled the world with their enchanting photographs, which captured the essence of the Orient and the beauty of the desert.

They were the main reference for Orientalist painters who were fascinated by the Orient yet had never been there. Their rare collections included photos of Egypt when one of the numerous Nile branches still reached the pyramids, of famous Tunisian and Algerian desert tribes, and of Palestine.

Austrian Rudolf Franz Lehnert was born in 1878 and raised by his uncle in Vienna. He studied photography at the Vienna Institute of Graphic Arts and at the age of 21 he used the money he had inherited from his parents to travel.

He roamed Europe on foot, and was especially interested in Palermo, the hub of artists in Italy. In 1903 he realised he could sail to Tunisia, and there he fell in love with the southern oases and took numerous photos of tribal people and the desert there.

"One year later he returned to Europe and met by coincidence Ernst Heinrich Landrock, a young German man from a long line of coalminers, who came to Switzerland to study...However, when Landrock saw the photographs, he believed they could make a good business. They both travelled to Tunisia this time and from this point onwards they became business partners," Lambelet told Ahram Online.

For ten years they lived in Tunisia, where they opened a photography shop "Avenue de France," with Lehnert as the photographer and Landrock the administrative director.

"By 1908 they had a good name and were even awarded a prize for best photos in Paris," said Lambelet.

They made beautiful photos, particularly portraits which were Lehnert's specialty. The pictures highlighted the rare beauty of desert people who seldom wanted to be photographed, with the exception of the Awlad Nael tribe in Algeria, which was, according to Lambelet, "where people loved music and dance and women got to choose their husbands."

Throughout the years they toured the Mediterranean and made numerous photo collections. Many Orientalist painters who never set foot in the region used their photos for inspiration.

"In 1914, World War I broke out, and Landrock, being a German, was arrested. He was supposed to be put in a concentration camp, but there was an agreement between France and Germany that all people who never joined the army and had health problems were imprisoned in Switzerland," he continued.

At that time Lehnert was on a caravan between Algeria and Tunisia in the middle of the desert and when he came to Tunisia he was surprised to see his shop closed. He was soon arrested and imprisoned in Switzerland.

"Their mobility was limited to one village in Switzerland and this is where Lehnert met a German lady, and Landrock met my grandmother. After the First World War, having lost everything in Tunisia, they wanted to start again somewhere on the Mediterranean. Lehnert wanted to go to Tunisia, but Landrock preferred Cairo, especially with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, which made it the best timing for them to come."

In 1924 the Lehnerts and Landrocks, including Landrock’s step-son Kurt Lambelet, reached Alexandria on the boat Tereve and launched their Lehnert and Landrock shop in downtown Cairo.

For several years Lehnert focused on Egypt's historical heritage, monuments and landscape, which were in high demand; but being a portrait artist, he missed the openness of the Tunisians, as Egyptians were camera-shy.

Nonetheless, his photography collection From Alexandria to Abu Simbel and his 400 photos of the Egyptian museum were artistic gems that were well received.

"Ten years ago the film was the material where you have all the information. Before the Second World War, it was made of glass plates, and glass plates depended on technique and time. The cameras which used to be in front of the Mogamma administrative building are a good example," Lambelet added, explaining that they were called water cameras.

 By 1930, Lehnert sold his share to Landrock and travelled with his wife and daughter back to Tunisia, where he opened a studio and continued to work until he died in Tunisia in 1948.

"Landrock continued alone in Cairo with my father. However in 1938, Landrock feared the same scenario would occur and that they would close down the bookshop because of the approaching world war. So he sold 80 per cent of his shares to my father (Kurt Lambelet) because he was Swiss and thus from a neutral country. One year later came the outbreak of World War II and the Landrocks were stuck in Germany due to the war, and retired there until Landrock died in 1966."

Until that time the bookshop was focused on photography, selling postcards and posters. Because of the war, it was not possible to import anything from Germany, so during the Second World War they switched to the trade they are still known for - book selling. They eventually became one of the two biggest English bookshops in Cairo.

"I joined my father's business in 1979 and in 1982, I discovered a big box in the attic full of glass plates that held 6,000 photos."

And so began the revival phase of this photographic treasure which had captured the lifestyle and culture of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Palestine at the beginning of the century.

Lehnert and Landrock's treasures roamed Europe and Egypt in exhibitions, they were printed in numerous books, and some of the glass plates are stored in the Musee De l'Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Today postcards of such rare collections are in print and for sale at the very bookshop that witnessed such beauty in the making.  

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