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Tuesday, Mar.14/06 . Announcement of winners of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts. The press conference was held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Arnaud Maggs (79), a photographer, is one of the winners . Pictures taken on Mar.14/06Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Renowned Toronto-based portrait artist Arnaud Maggs brought an intellectual, honest touch to images of notables including Northrop Frye, Anne Murray, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, his colleagues recalled Monday amid news of his death.

Maggs died of cancer at Kensington Hospice in the city on Nov. 17, said the Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto. He was 86.

"He was one of the most charming people I've ever met," Hobbs, who worked with Maggs for almost 20 years, said Monday in a telephone interview.

Maggs won several high-profile honours throughout his career, including the 2006 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, and this year's $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award.

He also showcased his work around the world and most recently had an exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada.

"He spoke authoritatively in his work and ... I loved his intense desire to portray the past in a way that resonated with the present, and his love of not just the portraiture of individual faces but the portraiture of people's lives and the stories they'd led," said Jane Nokes, executive director of the Scotiabank Photography Award.

Born in Montreal, Maggs began his artistic career in the mid-1970s after successful stints as a graphic designer and commercial and fashion photographer in New York and Toronto.

"Saying to the world and everyone around you: 'I am a professional artist, this is who I am and what I'm going to do,' and you take away that safety net and there's not going to be the underpinning any longer, is a huge leap," said Nokes, who is also director of Scotiabank Group's Corporate Archives and Fine Art Collection.

Maggs's first photographic project, 64 Portrait Studies (1976-78), put him on the map and defined his style, with a grid-like series of black-and-white images of men and women. Each subject was seen in frontal and profile views with bare shoulders.

"They were very crisp, straightforward, sort of brutally honest photos," said Hobbs.

Maggs went on to do similar, larger portrait projects, with the aim of cataloguing the geometry of the human face. His photographic approach often involved shooting in daylight, isolating a single item in each frame and then grouping images together in grids.

He also captured ephemeral objects and created work from documents, including records of child labour in textile mills as well as 19th-century invoices and death notices from wars.

"Those sort of massive installations ... were just overwhelmingly beautiful as well as instructive," said Nokes.

With his After Nadar show at the Susan Hobbs Gallery last March, Maggs featured his own self-portraits in theatrical costume and makeup, taking inspiration from the work of the exhibition's titular 19th-century French photographer.

An exhibition of Maggs's work will launch at Ryerson Image Centre in May 2013.

Hobbs said a public memorial will be held at Toronto's Hart House in the near future.