Any new medium clings for a while to the conventions of the medium it succeeds. Just as early cinema looked a lot like theater, so early photography often emulated classical narrative painting. In the portraits of Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil, the subjects are contemporary but they are tinged with a desire for the subjective hues of painting. It is, in a way, nostalgia for an earlier photography that was most often seen in vintage postcards colored by anonymous hands. But Nabil adds his own unique blend of mixed media, vignette, and melancholic sensibility to create a body of work that is fluid in its recall of eras past.

Nabil grew up in Cairo, where his early shyness led to his love for old movies, and for their gaudily colorized posters. When he first developed his skills as a photographer, he favored black-and-white images. (His stints under Mario Testino and David LaChapelle showed him “how a real artist studio functions in the West.”) But when he came around to wanting his work to have color, he had no interest in using color film. He sought out the last remaining portrait studio colorists, remembering the hand-painted images that were prevalent when he was a boy. From these dozen fading retouching artists in Cairo and Alexandria, Nabil learned the technique of layering watercolor onto black-and-white photos. He experimented further as his career took off, and eventually applied his signature style to the faces of friends, randomly met strangers, and the famous. But he never stopped making self-portraits that expressed his social and existential concerns, particularly about the unsolvable puzzle of mortality.

Nabil emphasizes the influence of his passion for film of all kinds, not only in the glamour of Egyptian movies, but that of Europe and Hollywood. “Cinema is life,” says Nabil. “And life is cinema, in a way. When you look at someone’s life, there’s a beginning and an end that we can’t know until it happens, nor how long life is going to last.” He chooses directors and stories that bring something deeper to his understanding of existence. “Some directors, some movies do that, they have the effect of ‘white magic’ on people.” At the same time, he has absorbed the lessons of art and singles out Frida Kahlo as a touchstone. “I loved the fact that you could turn your suffering into art. I was 19 when I discovered her work, and it was the first time I understood that you can show your very personal story in your art, painful or not. She was a big inspiration.”

Nabil admits to a penchant for posing strong women who are intrepid and unapologetic about their work and place in society. One of his favorite subjects is Fifi Abdou, a renowned belly dancer and actress who defied taboos of exposed female flesh and public sensuality in the Arab world. Others include Marina Abramovic, architect Zaha Hadid, and British artist Tracey Emin, with whom he has become friends. Nabil’s art has transformed the figures of artists and performers he admires, including celebrated European actresses such as Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, and Isabelle Adjani — whom he has often shot wearing traditional black veils. Intentionally or not, his Veil series alludes to mourning and chastity, though Nabil is more focused on the formal beauty of a classically draped and framed visage, as seen in countless Renaissance paintings. It also serves to connect him to his Egyptian heritage, as part of a fashion tradition with a pragmatic basis in the local climate. And there is another element. “I also think it brings some peace to the wearer,” he says, while not keen on speaking further about the garment’s religious overtones.

Nabil’s alluring images are a window not just on his country, which is perhaps less known in fine-art photography circles, but also on the artist’s expressive inner world. Taking a deeply personal route that fuses photography and painting, it belies the notion that the camera is wholly objective. “There’s something romantic about it, this combination. One of the mysteries of life, I guess.”

Youssef Nabil’s photographs are included in the “Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East” exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view indefinitely. His work will also be seen in “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, from April 8 until August 2. His last book, Youssef Nabil, was published by Flammarion in 2014, with an essay by Hans Ulrich Obrist.


More from the Photographer Spotlight Series: