11/22/2012 12:33 EST | Updated 01/22/2013 05:12 EST

Canadian Photographer Arnaud Maggs: The Master Passes

Xaque Gruber

Eighty-six-year-old photographer Arnaud Maggs didn't suffer media fools lightly. "If another reporter asks me how come I have managed to stay active so long, and what is my secret to long life, I am going to tell him sex and drugs," he groused as we walked out of the Canada AM television studio.

"What about Rock and Roll?" I asked. Arnaud thought for a moment, smiled and answered, "less so." It was in the late spring and Maggs was on a roll. He had had a successful show of his works in Toronto at the Susan Hobbs Gallery. The National Gallery in Ottawa had paid the ultimate tribute by opening Arnaud Maggs: Identification a survey exhibition that follows the senior artist's production over four decades.

And then, the Toronto-based photographer won the Scotiabank Photography Award -- Canada's richest and most prestigious photography award -- and that is where I came in. I had been hired to promote the second annual Scotiabank Photography Award to Canadians.

After winning the $50,000 purse, a book publishing deal and an upcoming exhibition in Toronto in 2013, the photographer was media hot. He was in demand. Radio. Television. Newspapers. We campaigned like he was running for office.

Arnaud willingly made the rounds with me, talking to the art media about his work, his hopes for the future, and, sigh, yes his secrets for staying young. It was not surprising that he would be asked about his age. He was trim, fit and dressed all in black. Large owl glasses, a black porkpie hat and a Cheshire cat smile. He had so much energy. So much life. He looked 60, yet 90 loomed. People wanted to know if it would ever end.

It did. On Saturday November 17, 2012. After a brief battle with cancer, the country's most skilled black and white studio photographer passed away in a Toronto hospice. His wife, artist Spring Hurlbut, two sons, Lorenzo and Toby and daughter, Caitlan, their mother Margaret Frew, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, survive him.

At the time of his death Arnaud was working with Scotiabank on the publication of a book of his life's work. The European publishing house Steidl will issue the book posthumously in the spring.

"His legacy will live on through his art and in the lives of the artists and art-enthusiasts whom he has touched with his work," read a statement issued by Scotiabank yesterday. "His work will be celebrated with an exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) program during Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival 2013. A commemorative book will accompany the exhibition."

"Works by Maggs," continued the statement, "are in many important public collections including the National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Vancouver Art gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Gallery of Alberta, Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts." His work has been shown and collected throughout Canada and Europe (mainly France). In the United States he was included in Charles Stainback's Special Collections: The Photographic Order from Pop to Now organized and toured by the International Centre of Photography in New York.

Arnaud Maggs began his career as an artist in the mid-seventies at the age of 47, after success as a graphic designer and then a commercial and fashion photographer. His early work used portraiture to catalogue the geometry of the face.

For the past 17 years Arnaud has created work from documents related to child labour at the turn of the century, French mourning stationary, the address book of Eugène Atget, a tradesman's sample kit, and a series of invoices from 1891 documenting the clothing purchases of a Parisian couple named Gendot. Also for the first time, he photographed in colour -- a subtle understated use of the medium. As with Arnaud's earlier work, the means of presentation (the arrangement of photographs in grids) persists, as does the general concern of classification

My filmmaking associate George Socka and I interviewed Arnaud for a Huffington Post piece that I worked on earlier this year. We spent an hour with Arnaud inside The Susan Hobbs Gallery here in Toronto at the start of an exhibition he called After Nadar. (Nadar was the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820 -1910). He was a famous French photographer, caricaturist, journalist and balloonist who lived and worked in the city of Paris.)

Maggs was inspired by an 1855 series of photographs that Nadir took of Pierrot, a celebrated pantomime artist. "Maggs," explained gallery owner Susan Hobbs, "has 'restaged' these photographs but with himself as the sitter."


"As Pierrot, Maggs pantomimes making work, collecting, enjoying books and music -- activities that mirror his real life habits and influences in his practice as an artist," continued Hobbs. "Objects such as a 19th century death notice envelope and white enameled jugs, which have appeared as subjects in Maggs' previous works, turn up here as props and suggest an embedded historical survey of his work to date.

In Pierrot the Archivist, over stacks of grey archival boxes -- a common sight in Maggs' studio -- Pierrot contemplates a portrait of the artist as a younger man, a gesture that verges on a contemporary vanitas. In all of these portraits, Maggs has artfully positioned himself as photographer and performer to narrate his own past, present, and future."

In the posted interview Arnaud talks about his exhibition in Ottawa, and about his nomination for the Scotiabank Award. Socka's interview was one of the last that Arnaud would give.