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Leonard Cohen meditates in his underwear in an undated photo.Arnaud Maggs/Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

“Arnaud was clever and seductive,” says Paul Orenstein. “He could charm the pants off people.”

Literally, apparently.

Arnaud is Arnaud Maggs, the late, great Canadian photographer who shot Leonard Cohen on numerous occasions. Three of those portraits are included in a new Cohen exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario that focuses on the Hallelujah bard visually. One of them, from 1975, is of Cohen meditating in his underwear. Another, from 1972, captures him wearing nothing but a frown and a towel.

“Leonard and Arnaud were close enough to each other that Leonard allowed this,” says Orenstein, a Toronto photographer who worked as an assistant to Maggs as a teenager in the early 1970s. “Leonard was pretty hip. He didn’t do anything he didn’t want to do.”

The AGO’s Cohen exhibit, Everybody Knows, explores the Montrealer’s “dynamic artistry and spiritual journey through his own art, photographs, lyrics and writings,” according to the gallery. Included are sketches and paintings and self-portrait Polaroids. But why the photos by Maggs?

More than just a willing photo subject, Cohen was an eager participant in the process. “Leonard choreographed and stage managed how his photographs were made,” says the AGO’s Julian Cox, who curated the exhibit. “Whether he took the photos himself or whether somebody else took them of him.”

Cohen and Maggs were both late bloomers. The poet-novelist was 34 when he released his first album, 1967′s Songs of Leonard Cohen. Maggs was 47 when he abandoned his career as a commercial illustrator, photographer and graphic designer to become a full-time artist.

They came together in the 1970s, when both were finding their way. Maggs, for example, didn’t know how to make his own prints. He hired Orenstein for $15 a week (plus two rolls of film) to do it for him. “He kept asking for more, more, more, and he was always right,” says Orenstein. “There was more there that he wanted to see, and eventually I would get it for him.”

Cohen needed help as well. Showing up in Nashville in 1968 to record his second album, Songs From a Room, he asked producer Bob Johnston, “I’m ready, what do you want me to do?”

Cohen had left Room 424 of New York’s Chelsea Hotel for backwoods Tennessee. His new home was a cabin outside Nashville that he rented for US$75 a month from Everly Brothers songwriter Boudleaux Bryant. Cohen’s nearest neighbours were a toothless moonshiner and a rodeo star.

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Leonard Cohen wearing nothing but a frown and a towel in Nashville, 1972.Arnaud Maggs/Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

In addition to Songs From a Room, Cohen also recorded 1971′s Songs of Love and Hate in Nashville. He was back in the city again in 1972 to rehearse for a tour of Europe. Canadian Paul Saltzman, assigned to write a cover story for Maclean’s magazine, travelled to the so-called Music City to interview Cohen. The photographer for the feature was Maggs.

Part of Cohen’s pretour regimen was a daily workout at a Nashville YMCA. “He told me he needed to get his body in shape for what was coming,” says Saltzman.

It was at the YMCA that Maggs shot Cohen. The photo from that session in the Everybody Knows exhibition is of Cohen in a locker room. A naked man in the background weighs himself. Cohen, discouraged by the music business and the direction of his career, glumly faces the camera.

“I’ve been trying to get out of Nashville for three years, and now I must prepare to embrace 100,000 people on this tour,” Cohen told Saltzman for the Maclean’s piece. “As far as I can see this is my last tour. But the will is frail and I may fall back and it might take ten more tours to finally quit, or this might be it.”

Cohen kept touring until, in 1994, he retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, beginning a five-year seclusion. Maggs shot him in 1975 and again in 1977. Both portraits are included in the AGO exhibition.

“I think those two really got each other,” says Orenstein, who photographed the troubadour himself in the early 1980s. Cohen had written Book of Mercy, a collection of contemporary psalms. He had a lothario’s reputation. He was worried the title suggested a sermon and, as such, would invite suspicion. He was right.

“Cohen had re-embraced his Jewish faith and acknowledged his womanizing of the past,” Orenstein says. “I’m thinking, ‘Does a leopard change his spots?’ ”

Riding an elevator in New York with Cohen, Orenstein got his answer. When the doors opened, there stood a beautiful young woman. “I’m standing there with my camera bag and I’m looking at Leonard, and we’re both speechless,” Orenstein recalls. “She’s looking at him and she’s speechless.”

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Cohen and Maggs were both late bloomers.Arnaud Maggs/Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

The woman didn’t get on the elevator. Just as the doors were about to close, Cohen smiled and said to her, “Bye, sweetie.”

Cohen and the photographer looked at each other but didn’t say a word. “That whole question I had about him was answered for me,” Orenstein says.

Was Cohen being tested?

“I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I think he failed.”

Everybody Knows opens Dec. 7 at the AGO for members; Dec. 13 for general admission.