Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

An Egyptian legend

Photographer Sherif Sonbol probes the history of the German bookshop

 Salaheddin Citadel
Salaheddin Citadel
Al-Ahram Weekly

A long time ago, I stepped into this impressive bookstore on Sherif Street in downtown Cairo: one of only two venues in all of Cairo selling picture books. Although it was called Lehnert and Landrock even then, it was known to my friends and me as “the German bookshop”. I remember offering them my pictures and being turned down; in a few years’ time I would be the first ever Egyptian photographer to publish a picture book, but no matter. A few weeks ago I returned to the place with Nina Awadley to see the latest book they published, Lehnert and Landrock: Postcards from the Past, Loving Egypt, where I was received on the second floor — the gallery space — by the couple Roswitha and Eduoard. In his foreword to this coffee-table gem novelist Alaa Al-Aswany writes, “A camera remains a unique invention in the history of mankind, enabling us to freeze time at a specific moment and keep it pictured forever... The Egypt featured here no longer exists.”
I was curious to see what that Egypt looked like in the 170 postcards reproduced in the book: how the streets had neither rubbish nor street vendors, how clean even the villages are, the ordered, quiet traffic... I even found a lovely view of the Philae Temple in Aswan sunk in the Nile, yet looking better than it looks today after it was rescued. But I was even more curious about the story behind the pictures. Who are those two people who froze moments from early 20th-century Egypt and saved them for us? We moved onto to Roswitha and Eduoard’s house, a beautifully lit space nicely decorated in an Egyptian style studded with Swiss touches. Eduoard leaned back in his chair, and started to tell me the story.
Eduoard Lambelet, from French-speaking Switzerland, is only indirectly related to Lehnert and Landrock: Landrock married his grandmother. Neither Lehnert nor Landrock were Swiss, no: Landrock was from Saxony, Germany; Lehnert was born in a part of Austria that became part of Czechoslovakia after WWI, but he became a French citizen in 1930 after marrying a woman from Alsace. Lehnert lost his parents at a very early stage and was raised by an uncle in Vienna, where he studied at the Graphic Institute — one of the first places in Europe to teach photography. Landrock was the son of a poor miner from Saxony, a self-made man. To this day it remains a mystery how the two of them became friends. Family lore has it that, at the age of 25 Lehnert inherited some money and walked through Austria and past Italy to Palermo whence he sailed to Tunis. There he encountered the “revelation” of light and nature, which he photographed: he walked to the south and back up north, travelling back to Switzerland where he met Landrock (whom he already knew); and it was Landrock who, on seeing the pictures, thought a business could be made out of them — producing postcards of the Orient.
Based in Tunis, the two of them set about to realise that dream: Landrock keeping shop (and lab) in the town, Lehnert trekking about taking pictures. Among many journeys, he joined a caravan from Tozer, and went to Biskra in south Algeria. He was away for two-three months, during which he took all those beautiful photos still being sold on Sherif Street. Much research has been done in France on the legend of Lehnert and Landrock and it is believed that Lehnert was a portrait photographer who seldom had the chance to photograph people in the Middle East (with the exception of the matriarchal tribe of Ulad Naeil in southern Algeria, whose members are wandering minstrels for much of their lives, and to whom Lehnert was introduced by the French painter Etienne Dinet). When the war broke out in 1914 Lehnert and Landrock were accused of being German spies by the French: Landrock was transferred to a Swiss village while Lehnert continued to take pictures until he too was arrested and transferred to Algeria, Corsica and finally a different Swiss village. At that time both men married: Landrock met his Alsace woman; Lehnert met Emily, Edouard’s grandmother, who being fed up with her husband fled with him. After the end of the war they returned to Tunis for their things, but by that time the glass plates, which were sent to Germany for processing, were mostly lost. The two partners opened a shop in Leipzig. It is said that their best clients were from South Africa, “because in South Africa they have a desert but no photos”. They made good money — enough to settle down in their continent of choice, but while Lehnert (who by then spoke fluent French) preferred Tunisia, Landrock was fed up with the French and preferred Cairo. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 gave them the push to come to Egypt. A year later, Lehnert was already photographing there, and in October 1924 Landrock arrived with his wife.
“My father was only 19 then, when he rejoined Lehnert in Egypt. He had been raised in French and German and in Egypt he learned not only English but also spoken Italian, Greek and Arabic. Lehnert photographed Alexandria and Abu Simbel as well as Jerusalem and the Egyptian Museum, taking hundreds of pictures. But, unhappy where he could not communicate with people or get them to model for him, in 1930 he sold his share to Landrock and went back to Tunis where he spent the rest of his life and was buried. Landrock remained with his stepson, my father, who stayed in Egypt much longer than originally planned, met a Greek woman and married her. I was born a year later. In 1938, after 14 years in Egypt, Landrock sold 80 per cent of his business to my father and took my grandmother on their first trip back to Europe. In those days news travelled slowly and they were shocked with what they found. They were stuck in Germany when the war broke out. I went to visit them when I was 18; by then they were too old to come back. I didn’t realise then that I would be involved in the business; there were so many questions I could’ve asked...”
After the 1956, following “the beautiful four years after the 1952 revolution”, Edouardo went back to Switzerland, did his military service and studied geology in Hamburg. He had worked in the oil fields in Spain for five years when his company decided to transfer him to Egypt because he could speak a little Egyptian Arabic.
“In time, my wife started working with my father, who still had the bookshop under the original name so many years after Lehnert left to Tunisia (though, Lehnert being difficult to pronounce, it was now known informally as the German bookshop), and eventually I joined him too. This was a completely new world, working with books. By that time, Lehnert and Landrock was a bookshop selling books as well as vintage postcards, and enlargements. We split up the responsibility: my father was in charge of the photography, I of the books. I was very busy with the book section until 1982, when — looking for spare room — I came upon a room full of glass plates and asked my father about it. He said I could always throw such ‘old stuff’ away; he didn’t have it in his heart to do so. We still had a lab where a technician worked for two hours a day, producing reasonable but not perfect prints. I gave him the plates 10 at a time and asked for two prints of each; he gave me 10 pictures a day, and it was an exciting process discovering and connecting them. One day a French client saw a picture by accident and declared it was his ‘home country’, explaining he was from Algeria. It was Philippe Cardinal, who later worked for the Institut du Mond Arab, working for the French Embassy at the time. He wanted to produce a book with the plates, my father had no objection — and so we published our first book on north Africa and Ulad Naiel in Paris in 1985, with text by Philippe Cardinal...”
It was the beginning of the second life of Lehnert and Landrock: a Canadian photographer, Chris Langtvet, started working with the negatives; and Roswitha realised this could be good business. So Edouard turned one empty room into a gallery. Later many glass plates were transferred to Switzerland to be properly preserved, and the legend was rediscovered once again.

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