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Arnaud Maggs in 2006.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

When this weekend draws to a close, so too does the Ryerson Image Centre's exhibition of works by the late Arnaud Maggs, a Canadian photographer of rare intelligence, grace and delicacy who died last November at the age of 86. His passing induced a rare collective melancholy in Toronto's art circles. But how to mourn an artist whose metier was, itself, a kind of mourning?

Melancholy, albeit sweetly tinged, was Maggs's muse. His work meticulously documented the traces of human beings long departed, whether their once-presence was evidenced in the faded pastel invoices of an affluent Lyonnaise couple from the 1800s, or the documentation of 19th-century industrial child labourers, or the arresting geometries of traditional French and German death notices, with their heavy black borders and punctuation points of crimson sealing wax – all objects that Maggs gathered in his exhaustive collecting forays here and abroad. (With his wife, Spring Hurlbut, he shared his time between Toronto and the Aveyron region in the south of France, the renovation of their historic house there a kindred act of diligent and heartfelt retrieval.)

Maggs, though, was best known for his work in portraiture, characteristically borrowing the formal strategy of police ID photos (front and side views) to document, and reveal, the subject. His monumental series of black-and-white portraits taken in the Dusseldorf Art Academy in 1980, is on view in the RIC show, and, despite its quasi-forensic formal arrangement, it is anything but cold – a testament, in fact, to the fleeting intensity of encounter between Maggs and his youthful student subjects. (The German artist Thomas Ruff was a young student in Dusseldorf at the time, his contact with the Canadian visitor likely engendering his now-famous pursuit of the large-scale frontal portrait.)

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In that same year, Maggs also photographed the more senior Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz (also on view at Ryerson), this time in a revolving, multi-image serial view bearing witness to duration, a theme fortuitously underscored by Kertsz's occasional lapses into dozing before the artist's lens. The old man's face turns away from us and then returns to our gaze again as the photographic sequence progresses, a rotation that seems to mimic the turning of the hours.

The sense of the photograph as a witness to time and change underpins these projects, coupled with a profound attentiveness to the subtle gradations of perception. Speaking in the documentary film Spring & Arnaud, released by Canadian directors Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly after Maggs's death, Maggs says; "I collect things that look alike but are not quite the same," revelling in those fine shifts in form. In this – like the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose taxonomic serial studies of German architecture were a source of inspiration to him – he calls us to attend to the world around us, deciphering meaning in the telling details. It's a call to looking.

At the end of his life, Maggs was drawn to the figure of Pierrot, emboldened by Nadar's 1854 photograph of the sprightly mime Charles Deburau. Aware of his cancer diagnosis and treating his own fate with the same scrupulous consideration that he had for years vested in his subjects, Maggs suited up in costume and makeup and performed before the camera, embodying a host of identities: Pierrot the photographer, but also the lover, the storyteller, the musician, the archivist, the collector, the painter. Ghost-like, and tragicomic, Maggs toyed elegantly with posterity, crafting his own remembrance, and dancing with death on feet as light as butterfly wings. This is how he lived, and this is how he died.

Arnaud Maggs: Scotiabank Photography Award closes at the end of Sunday at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. The complete series of Maggs's self portraits as Pierrot, After Nadar, can be seen in the Art Gallery of Ontario's Light My Fire: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography, on view until Oct. 2.

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