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Arnaud Maggs's current touring exhibition celebrates the phenomenon of colour, and there's an irony in that. The 79-year-old Toronto photographer -- one of the just-announced recipients of the Governor-General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts -- is the very apotheosis of black and white. He even looks black and white, with his silver hair, his slate-grey eyes, his pale North Sea complexion and his all-black artist's attire cladding his sparrow-light frame.

Meeting him for lunch last week at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa to talk about his most recent works (on show there), I had to admit he seemed superbly art-directed, a study in grisaille. The only touch of colour was his handsome tortoiseshell Gucci sunglasses, a self-administered and characteristically understated perk of seniority, perhaps, for one of Canada's most respected artists.

Colour is something he has avoided since his first days, he says, and he is fond of a quotation from the photographer Paul Outerbridge. "He said: 'With black and white you can suggest, but with colour you have to be certain, absolutely certain.' " Maggs adds: "For many years, I just didn't think there was a need for it. Colour doesn't help most photography."

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Since he left his career as a graphic designer and fashion photographer at the age of 47 (that was in 1973), Maggs has admitted only the occasional touch of colour, and only after 18 years of art making. His earliest work, titled 64 Portrait Studies (1976-78), was a suite of rigorous black-and-white portrait studies of friends and colleagues from his artistic milieu -- from his daughter, Caitlin, to Mavis Staines (who now heads the National Ballet School) -- observed with a systematic, laboratory-like detachment from the front, side and back. Other portrait series followed.

Subsequent works in black and white have catalogued French hotel signs (which were fascinating to him for their variety of typefaces and designs), and the Complete Prestige 12" Jazz Catalogue (just the numbers, reproduced in Franklin Gothic Condensed typeface, "one of the most beautiful faces ever done"). Later works involved photographing various historical documents, and presenting them on a large scale. Increasingly, colour has crept in, but only, he says, because it was needed. His Travail des enfants dans l'industrie (1994) documents the paper tags on which the working hours of child textile-factory workers were recorded. "The tags are soft pink, beigey, soft yellow," Maggs says. "You get that dirty kind of pale colour, which is lovely.

Then came his Notifications series. The black-bordered envelopes that were used for 19th-century death notices were often stained and sealed with blood-red wax; Maggs shot in colour to show us that.

In all these cases, the things that Maggs places before us seem to stand in for something larger, something more amorphous, and intangible -- the hidden dramas that unfold behind the façade of a hotel, the motivations and conflicts that lie behind a human countenance, the life of a small child working in a textile mill, leaving his or her little trace behind on a dog-eared section of card before disappearing into historical oblivion.

Maggs delicately points to our limitations in accounting for things, focusing instead on the oddly reassuring charms of those signs and symbols we can hold on to.

His new work, in the Oshawa show, seems particularly to revel in all this. One series of 13 images draws its title from a 19th-century book that it documents, Werner's Nomenclature of Colours.

The little volume (with a title too enormous to give in full here) -- written in 1816 and presented in this show in a cabinet alongside Maggs's photographic homage -- was used by Charles Darwin on his expedition aboard the Beagle as a kind of field guide to colour, providing what was hoped to be standard names for the colours observed in nature. Describing its charms, Maggs suddenly turns rapturous. "It takes in everything. It takes in the world, and there's that wonderfully 19th-century vision of things. It's a colonial view, isn't it?" he adds, referring to how European touchstones were used to describe and categorize New World unknowns. "From our standpoint today, it seems very naive."

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Originally the work of a mineralogist named Werner, the Nomenclature was added to and refined by his subsequent editor Patrick Symes, an amateur botanist and flower painter. Thus the resulting volume describes colours by animal, vegetable and mineral equivalents, with a small watercolour sample of each pigment appended to each description.

This produces an array of strange contiguities. Snow White is, variously, described as the colour of the "breast of the black-headed gull," "the snow drop" and "Carrara marble." Skimmed Milk White, on the other hand, is the colour of the "back of the petals of blue hepatica," "common opal" and "white of human eyeballs." The referents can be, by turn, madly esoteric ("inside quill feather of the kittiwake"), magic-seeming ("belly of a warty newt"), poetically ambiguous ("gold fish lustre abstracted") and even shockingly vague ("flint").

Drawing our attention to these inscriptions, as Maggs does, he teases us with the futility of Werner's encyclopedic attempt at knowing and cataloguing. How can we presume to share a frame of reference that would make such comparisons meaningful?

Like all attempts at universal language, it is imperilled from the start.

Maggs's other work in the current show also deals with colour, but here the emphasis is on theory, rather than direct observation. The book under scrutiny here is a study by Michel-Eugène Chevreul's called Cercles Chromatiques, written in 1861. (Chevreul's ideas greatly influenced French painting, Maggs says, in particular the work of Paul Seurat and Robert and Sonia Delaunay.)

Maggs's sequential work replicates, in 10 prints, Chevreul's study of the 72 colours he identified as pure, revealing their modulation through the incremental addition of black, in 10 distinct phases. Looking at the works installed on the wall, you see radiant dials of colour dampened down, step by step, to blackness, an entropic falling away of vitality that Maggs describes as a "passage from day to night, from positive to negative, from life to death." Is Maggs musing on mortality here, luxuriating in the glow of colour, and mourning its passing? It seems incongruous with the man -- fit as a fiddle and bursting with stories of his latest projects and passions.

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This, however, is not his only act of mourning. These days, he's shooting all the SX-70 Polaroid film he can get his hands on -- a technology that he says is soon to slip into obsolescence. He's also printing as many of his portrait studies as possible on the old-fashioned photographic papers he favours, which are also rapidly becoming obsolete. (Ilford Cold Tone paper is his favourite.) Maggs laments, too, the passing of the solitary artisanal craft of the darkroom.

"Now you have to look over somebody's shoulder and he's pushing buttons," he says, recalling the making of his most recent pieces, which have involved cosmetic tweaking. "It's incredible what you can do," he adds, deferential to the new technology. "But I don't quite like it."

Arnaud Maggs Nomenclature continues at the Robert McLaughlin Art Gallery in Oshawa, Ont., until March 26 (905-576-3000) and travels on to Gallery One One One, in Winnipeg, McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, and the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal.

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