The Pick: photographer Arnaud Maggs’s turn as history’s greatest sad sack

The Pick: photographer Arnaud Maggs’s turn as history’s greatest sad sack

Pierrot in Love and Pierrot Receives a Letter, by Arnaud Maggs 

Octogenarian photographer Arnaud Maggs keeps making himself over. He started his career as a graphic designer for an advertising agency in the ’60s, then transitioned into fashion and lifestyle photography (he even shot some vintage Toronto Life covers back in the day), before emerging as a visual artist and art photographer in the mid ’70s. In his latest series of photographs, Maggs reinvents himself once more: with a little powder, a ruffled collar and a touch of black lipstick, the self-portraits reimagine the artist as Pierrot, the sad French clown of the commedia dell’arte.

Maggs is best known for his striking gridded portrait studies of various catalogues and taxonomies—he’s photographed close-ups of 19th-century envelopes used for mailing death notices and colour study manuals, and taken portraits of subjects known and anonymous. This time, he’s focused the lens on himself, in a nod to a famous series by the pioneering French photographer Félix Nadar. At first, it seems strange that for his first self-portrait exhibit, Maggs hides behind the whiteface and beanie cap of this archetypal sad sack. But it’s merely a distancing mechanism—one by one, the photos reveal themselves to be incredibly autobiographical.

For example, as Pierrot, Maggs is shown holding one of those same mourning envelopes he shot back in 1996, or perched on the grey boxes that are often found in his studios. In one series, he appears from the front and side, mirroring his famous portrait series of the German performance artist Joseph Beuys. In one shot, he stands next to a camera. The photos are jarring and beautifully composed, but the real draw is how personal they are—it’s one of the first times that Maggs has allowed his audience any interior glimpse of himself. For over half a century, he’s catalogued and enumerated the world around him; his new exhibit is a rare opportunity to see the artist looking at himself.

The details: To April 14. Free. Susan Hobbs Gallery, 137 Tecumseth St., 416-504-3699, susanhobbs.com