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Photographers vie for $50K Canadian prize

03/16/2012 03:10 EDT | Updated 05/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Fred Herzog, a Vancouver photographer known for documenting the city since the 1950s, and Montrealer Alain Paiement, who creates unique images of the spaces we live in, are among the finalists for the Scotiabank Photography Award.

A jury also named Toronto Arnaud Maggs, who documents both people and archival objects in his photographs, as a contender for the $50,000 award.

Maggs' work revolves around questions of identity, jury member Ann Thomas, a curator at the National Gallery of Canada, said at a press conference Friday announcing the finalists.

Maggs is known for his series on famous artists, including Joseph Beuys, Yousuf Karsh, Northrop Frye and André Kertész, from the 1970s to 1990s. Each subject is featured in multiple portraits — often 48 images, representing the number of photos on a contact sheet — and his or her expression and demeanour changes over the course of the images.

"With [late literary thinker] Northrop Frye, it's as if you can see him thinking. You see the shifting of his consciousness over time," Thomas said, adding that Maggs had "changed the notion of individual portraiture."

Maggs, now 86, continues to work in Toronto and France, where he spends half the year and is preparing for a NGC retrospective of his work later this year. An exhibit of his photos is currently on display at the Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto.

In his most recent work, Maggs is documenting his own identity. The series of portraits show him as a Pierrot figure, modelled on images of the sad clown character by Parisian photographer Nadar.

"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."

Since 1993, when he stopped doing human portraits, Maggs' work has documented 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.

"Sometimes things come to me. I found this book of tags at a flea market, cover in dust as if it had been at the back of a garage for 75 years," he said.

Herzog a 'pioneer'

Vancouver's Herzog, who moved to Canada in 1952 after leaving his native Germany, is well-known for his portraits of the city dating back to 1957. Jury member William A. Ewing called him a "pioneer" of Canadian photography.

"He is an outsider, someone who could come in and notice things in a way that we could not see them," Ewing said.

Herzog's work displays "irony, wit, tenderness, an incisive quality, coolness and sometimes a political edge. In a word, it is profound," he added.

Paiement, who teaches at the University of Quebec at Montreal, explores architectural forms in his large format and composite photographs. His work helps us "comprehend the physical spaces in which we live and work," said jury member Karen Love of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

His striking images might show the interior of a building, its exterior and the streetscape around it simultaneously, as if the space has been pried open with a can-opener and spread flat. His recent works include a 360-degree panorama of a city street and the top-down view of an illegal squat.

Photographer Ed Burtynsky, who teamed with Scotiabank to create the prize, said Paiement has "taken photography to a new level, with a new way of seeing."

It's the second year for the Scotiabank Photography Award, which celebrates excellence in a body of work by a Canadian photographer. In addition to the cash prize, the winner receives an exhibit at Toronto's Contact photography festival and a deal with German publisher Steidl — which specializes in high-quality photography books — to release a high quality book of his or her work.

Burtynsky spoke of the importance of such books in increasing recognition of the art of photography. For instance, a 2003 NGC show that also included a book brought him international renown.

"It gives meaning and embodiment to a life's work,” he said. "It's the crown jewel of the prize."

The winner will be announced May 9 in Toronto.

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