Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Amid the cascade of changes in once-sleepy Crystal City —the latest being Amazon’s opening of two new office buildings and the Queen City public art at Metropolitan Park—one longtime institution stays true to its roots.

 Metro Camera has been manned by Jack Levonian in the Crystal Underground for 51 years. The veteran photographer of presidents now navigating the shoals of change took me on a look-back at the photo industry and Arlington’s most happenin’ neighborhood.

 Levonian, 80, is an Armenian who grew up in Cairo, Egypt. At age 15 after the Suez crisis, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was recruiting youngsters to the army. So his parents sent him to Khartoum, Sudan. There in August 1967 he was given entry to the palace to photograph heads of state at the Arab League Summit. “But I couldn’t see a future there,” he recalls. That led to a friend in the U.S. embassy helping him win a visa. 

Levonian arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1967 with $1,000. A steer from a Catholic aid organization helped him find work with famed photographer Leo Hessler. “Son, I’ll sign your papers,” said Hessler, known for portraits of presidents and Queen Elizabeth. But the job was only two days a week, so he worked in a shoe store and at the Vienna House of Beef. 

By 1972, an acquaintance offered the photographer cheap space in a Charles E. Smith-owned property in Crystal City, plus joint ownership of a shop. But the legal arrangement seemed fishy, so Levonian negotiated a $4,000 bank loan and bought the partner out. That same year he launched Metro Camera “before there was Metro” in the days of 35 mm cameras and “One-Hour Photos.” Soon his team was processing 200-300 film rolls daily.

In 1973, Metro Camera added a store at Fairfax’s Pickett Street Plaza. But within days a tornado destroyed it. President Nixon declared a disaster and gave him an interest-free loan (making Levonian a life-long Republican). Then came another store in Crystal City’s Underground, one at Skyline Mall and one downtown on New York Ave. Commuting from Silver Spring, he recalls the 1976 dedication of the Crystal City Metro Station attended by Washington Mayor Walter Washington.

With a staff of four, the store drew customers when the Underground had “shoulder to shoulder crowds”— including regular clients from the NAVSEA and NAVMAT naval offices. His landlord changed to Vornado Realty Trust and is now JBG Smith.

He continued his own VIP photography, showing me shots of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and G.H.W. Bush.

But demand faded as consumers embraced smartphone cameras and online photo storage. Metro Camera had to “diversify,” Levonian says, with “restoration of old photos, passport photos, enlarging, custom framing — everything in a photographic field.” Some customers continue to bring old cameras to sell on consignment. But he also broadened the merchandise to include tourist gifts, Hummel figurines and commercial art.

Of course he lost business during Covid. Nearby Rite-Aid closed in 2020, and he laid off staff.

The latest challenge is constant construction, he says. The closest entrance (by Morton’s Steakhouse, 1750 Crystal Dr.) makes finding him challenging. “The Amazon people are not fully back,” Levonian says. But the old customers are returning.”

Levonian doesn’t take photos anymore, devoting time to his son, daughter and four grandsons. “I enjoy what I’m doing. But I’m not going to be here another 50 years.” 


A nature-lover’s fun discovery materialized on my way to a dabble in nostalgia.

On the Facebook site “I Grew Up in Arlington, Va.,” I recently posted a 1964 photo of my pee-wee football team, the 85-pound Tops Cubs’ first-string offense in a handsome formation at Bluemont Park. A reader pointed out that the squiggly white American Sycamore tree visible in the background is still there —59 years later.

I sped over to confirm and happened on a staffer from Arlington Parks and Recreation, who said it’s surely 100 years old. Back when I was an 11-year-old athlete, I doubt I noticed it.