Toronto artist Arnaud Maggs dies at 86

Toronto photographer Arnaud Maggs, known for exploring themes of identity and categorization in his work, has died. He was 86.
Artist Arnaud Maggs poses with his work of art titled Notification xiii at the National Gallery in Ottawa on March 22, 2006. He died Saturday. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Toronto photographer Arnaud Maggs, known for exploring themes of identity and categorization in his work, has died. He was 86.

Maggs died Saturday of cancer at Kensington Hospice in Toronto, according to gallery owner Susan Hobbs.

The final year of his life was filled with accomplishment. Maggs won the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Prize for his idiosyncratic work and was honoured with a solo show at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Won GG for visual arts

As part of his win for the Scotiabank Photography Prize, Maggs' work will be featured at Toronto's Contact photography festival in May 2013 and  German publisher Steidl — which specializes in high-quality photography books – will release a book of his work.

Maggs is also a past winner of the Governor General’s Award for visual art.

Born in Montreal, Maggs trained as a graphic designer and moved into art photography in the mid-1970s at the age of 47.

Ledoyen Series, Working notes, 1976-78 by Arnaud Maggs. He frequently showed multiple images of his subjects. (Scotiabank Photography Prize)

After earning success as a graphic designer and as a commercial and fashion photographer in New York and Toronto, his early artistic work explored photographic portraiture and featured multiple images of a single subject.

He is best known for the  portrait series Joseph Beuys, 100 Profile Views and Joseph Beuys, 100 Frontal Views showcasing the German artist and friend. He also created stark, grid-like arrangements of photographs of Yousuf Karsh, André Kertész, literary critic and author Northrop Frye and other members of the Toronto arts community.

Portrait of Northrop Frye

"With [late literary thinker] Northrop Frye, it's as if you can see him thinking. You see the shifting of his consciousness over time," Ann Thomas, curator of the NGC's photograph collection, said in 2012 after he won the photo prize.

Maggs "changed the notion of individual portraiture," she added. "Under his unswerving and affectionate eye, he brings to a new level of appreciation both the idea of human identity represented through the photographic portrait and the idea of cultural evidence garnered through the traces that everyday things leave behind. We are grateful to him for opening our eyes to the significance of ordinary things."

In 1993, Maggs stopped doing human portraits and turned his practice to documenting  human systems of classification.

One recent series centred on child labourers in French textile mills in the earth 20th century. His photographs captured the tags on the fabric which bore the names of children who would otherwise be forgotten.

Arnaud Maggs was fascinated with human systems of classification. Canadian Press

"Sometimes things come to me. I found this book of tags at a flea market, covered in dust as if it had been at the back of a garage for 75 years," said Maggs in a 2012 interview with CBC News.  In recent years he spent half the year in France.

Work with archival objects

Maggs worked from found documents, including French mourning stationary, Eugéne Atget’s address book, and 19th century invoices documenting purchases of a couple living in Lyon, but the representation of objects in grids continued, part of his exploration of the way humans classify objects.

With After Nadar in March 2012, the artist returned to human portraiture – this time of himself. He staged a series of photographs of himself, wearing the costume and makeup of the sad clown Pierrot, modelled on the series captured by the Parisian photographer Nadar in his 1855 Pierrot series.

"It is autobiographical," Maggs told CBC News. "I saw a book in a bookshop with photographs of a Pierrot by Nadar. I loved the idea of reconstructing that photoshoot with myself at the centre."

He is survived by his wife, artist Spring Hurlbut, two sons, Lorenzo and Toby and daughter, Caitlan, their mother Margaret Frew, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.