Canadian photographer Arnaud Maggs’ art practice would make a fascinating case study in the rewards of a disciplined approach to looking at the world. When he died in 2012, Maggs’ respected position as an important, established artist was celebrated in numerous published recollections and commentaries. His photographs appealed to collectors and critics alike because the work could be assimilated and appreciated on several levels. Although Maggs’ artworks might appear to be straightforward, each piece commands the viewer’s attention and is often coded with layers of information and historical references.
The Estate of Arnaud Maggs has generously opened its archives to make a handful of works by the late artist available for purchase. This initial offering of ten pieces presents photographs from the early years of Maggs’ fine art practice. These artworks reference the artist’s personalized, but also accessible, studio philosophy; a quasi-scientific methodology he described as a System of Identification. We posed some questions to the Estate to find out about the artist’s processes and bodies of work. Maggs’ partner, artist Spring Hurlbut, and dedicated studio assistant Katiuska Doleatto, collaborated on the responses.
–Craig D’Arville, COO, FFOTO
64 Portrait Studies (detail 19) / (detail 20), 1976-78 © Estate of Arnaud Maggs / Courtesy of FFOTO.com
FFOTO: Let’s begin by learning a bit about Arnaud Maggs’ background and the interests that put him on his path towards becoming an artist. Is it correct to think that Maggs had a lifelong fascination with cataloguing things?
The Estate of Arnaud Maggs: Arnaud had this story he would tell about being a boy and waiting for the popcorn man:
“I used to stand outside my house and patiently wait for the Popcorn Man to arrive…driving a huge motorcycle and sidecar. Only in place of the sidecar was a large metal box. Both the motorcycle and the box beside it were painted gleaming white, with the words in black on the side ‘STOP ME AND BUY ONE’…Inside the box were neat rows of white paper bags filled with popcorn…Just plain white, neatly folded at the top…My fascination was with the whole process, and with being able to look through the window, where I could see another world.” A.M.
Of course, he wasn’t interested in eating the popcorn. He saved the bag and its contents and arranged them side by side, in rows in his room. Eventually, his mother disposed of the bags of uneaten popcorn.
In the late 1940s, Arnaud began his career in Montreal as a letterer, meticulously executing type by hand. He took evening classes in typography with famous designer Carl Dair and worked hard to build a rigorous portfolio. It wasn’t long before Arnaud made his mark as a leading graphic designer in Canada. In 1952, he moved to New York to establish his own freelancing business and for a period of time, he had the same rep as Andy Warhol.
In 1959, he moved to Milan to work for Studio Boggeri before returning to Toronto to work with Theo Dimson at Art Associates. In 1966, Arnaud purchased a Nikon camera and decided to become a commercial photographer. Within two years he was hired by TDF Artists Limited, one of Canada’s largest advertising art studios at the time.
All the skills he learned in his various professions were utilized once he made the decision to become a fine artist. He built his own darkroom, he developed his own negatives and for many years, he produced his own prints. He was always aware of the graphic potential of a large-scale work. He would often say that the difference between good or bad was a sixteenth of an inch. Precision was paramount.
Arnaud had the soul of an artist. He had amazing instinct, incredible visual acuity and unwavering determination. Once he allowed himself to move into this terrain, he instantly began to work at a very high level. The first large-scale work he ever made was shown at David Mirvish Gallery. It was 64 Portrait Studies, and it was a masterpiece.
It was in 1968 that Arnaud discovered the works of Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans. In 1969, he received a grant from the Canada Council to study the work of various artists living in Europe. He decided to travel to London and contact some of these photographers but to his surprise, they did not agree to see him. Undaunted, he journeyed to Belgium where he purchased a new Deux Chevaux Camionnette and drove through Europe and North Africa.
“For me, this was a voyage of discovery. I realized I had never stopped long enough to fully appreciate the world around me,” A.M.
He had become more and more disillusioned with the life of a fashion photographer, so in 1970 he left TDF Artists Limited. He eventually sold all of his camera equipment and moved into a tiny coach house that he turned into a live-in studio. He kept a series of scrapbooks in order to teach himself how to become a visual artist.
“I began to make a list of influences in my life, going back as far as my encounters with the Popcorn Man…I made lists of things I’d seen, places I’d been, music I’d heard and books I’d read…that were part of my unconscious being.” A.M.
It was 1973, and it was at this time that he took drawing classes and studied anatomy. While sketching the models, he became acutely aware of the varying shapes and proportions of the heads and profiles and decided to make this the focus of his work. Ironically enough, he quickly realized that the only way to truly document physiognomy is through the photographic medium. He immediately purchased a Rollei camera and began experimenting with new intention.
FF: That period of study leads to the creation of the Julia Mustard portraits, which are key transitional works in Maggs’ development as an artist. Can you provide some insight into that period in Maggs’ art practice?
EoAM: Arnaud often used family and friends as his subject matter as he played with different modes of lighting. Julia Mustard had a classic look that inspired him to attempt a more dramatic composition. He created a wonderful chiaroscuro effect that gives the portrait a very painterly aesthetic. As beautiful as it is, this effect didn’t quite capture the quality of the form that he observed in his early drawing classes.
Eventually, he discovered the mug shots of nineteenth-century criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. Bertillon’s scientific formulation of heads and profiles is precisely what Arnaud had in mind. In order to capture a more exacting likeness of the subject, Bertillon devised a simple format comprised of a stark and basic background using even, frontal lighting.
Arnaud chose to use a white background and he illuminated his subject with a single light source. He called this on-axis lighting. The lighting is diffused and it’s positioned above the subject with the centre of the umbrella or soft box tilted slightly down towards the subject. However, instead of working with flash, Arnaud preferred to use Northern light.
This discovery led to the creation of further iconic works.
FF: What part do the 64 Portrait Studies play in establishing Maggs’ approach to making art? Is it correct to consider them as nascent pieces in the development of Maggs’ “system of identification”?
EoAM: Arnaud’s vision was to accurately represent what he was observing. He wanted to invent a system that would force the viewer to look at the subject with an analytical eye.
At the beginning of his process, he set out to photograph the frontal and profile views of members of the art community as well as anonymous sitters.
During this time he decided to create grid compositions. As he progressed, he took notice of the film itself, with its numbers and repeating squares; Arnaud could already see a geometric formation. He then decided to use the intrinsic qualities of the material to determine structure in his own work. He would look at the frames per roll and establish how many negative strips could be arranged on a single contact sheet. In this way, he was able to identify the rigorous style with which he could present such works as 64 Portrait Studies that eventually led to his “systems of identification”.
Arnaud started working with time-based, serial photography in 1976. He was interested in shooting a subject over the period of roughly one hour. At first glance the portraits all look the same, however, once you spend time with the work, you start to notice the incremental differences. It wasn’t until 1980 that Arnaud discovered a floor sculpture by Carl Andre made up of one hundred steel plates arranged in a graph of five rows of twenty. This was the inspiration for Arnaud’s grid works comprised of one hundred photographs. This structure became a defining factor in how Arnaud presented the majority of his portraiture.
FF: Often the stance or pose used by Maggs’ sitters reads as being neutral, as in the portraits of Chris Burden and Christo. Other instances, like the 1977 diptych showing Leonard Cohen, appear to be more confrontational. The profile portion of the dual portrait suggests that Cohen was entering the frame right as the shutter snapped; it enlivens the pairing, enhancing the sense of energy in the work and implying a collaborative approach between subject and photographer.
EoAM: Arnaud would typically encourage his subjects to stare directly into the camera. He wasn’t looking for a smiling face. He wanted a more uniform, formal positioning of the sitter. Leonard Cohen was able to reciprocate with a great deal of concentration and gravitas.
Arnaud met Leonard Cohen in Nashville while working as a commercial photographer, which gave him access to the poet. They went to parties together and Arnaud recalled Cohen being quite the wallflower.
Chris Burden (detail 21) / (detail 23), 1983 © Estate of Arnaud Maggs / Courtesy of FFOTO.com
FF: Chris Burden was a seminal performance and installation artist who explored the idea of personal danger as artistic expression. As a sitter for Maggs, he is shown with his eyes shut in one photo and open in another. Was that an intentional direction on Maggs’ part to, as you say earlier, “force the viewer to look at the subject with an analytical eye”? It recurs in the pair of images featuring installation artist, Christo, too.
EoAM: The two portraits of Chris Burden are artist proofs taken out of a larger work titled,48 Views. Arnaud happened to take the shot while Burden was blinking. It seemed appropriate to create this pairing because one portrait is confrontational and the other is more internalized. There is a performative aspect to this action. Not only is it a consequence of Arnaud’s serial imagery, it also speaks to the nature of Burden as an artist.
With regards to the Christo photographs, the title, “Eyes Open and Eyes Shut”, denotes the artist’s intention.
Not unlike the people he photographed, he had a confidence in his process and great respect for his subjects. He was often quite bold in his approach. Arnaud seized opportunities when they presented themselves. When Kertész was introduced to him by Jane Corkin, he immediately requested a sitting. During this session Kertész fell asleep, which Arnaud captured on film. It’s one of the most extraordinary images because we witness the legendary artist falling forward.
FF: FFOTO is honoured to collaborate with the Estate and to offer a convenient way for collectors to acquire important works like these. The context provided in your responses gives a sense of the person who made these photographs. Taken together, this contributes to the goal of maintaining the vitality of Maggs’ legacy. What other approaches are being pursued by the Estate on behalf of the artist?
EoAM: Arnaud amassed a great breadth of black and white, analog photography. His “system of identification” and serial portraiture in the formation of large-scale grids is evidence that he was ahead of his time. FFOTO is an excellent vehicle for showcasing Arnaud’s oeuvre. We are pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this significant body of work to a wider public both national and international in scope.
Arnaud’s photography was recently included in three significant exhibitions. He continues to be sought after and placed in important museums and private collections.
FF: What can we expect to see in the next batch of listings at FFOTO?
EoAM: It will be a surprise.