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Arnaud Maggs wins Scotiabank Photography Award

Arnaud Maggs in 2006

Tibor Kolley

Veteran Toronto photographer Arnaud Maggs is the winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Photography Award, at $50,000 Canada's richest photography prize. Maggs, 86, received the honour at a gala Wednesday evening in Toronto, prevailing over two other finalists, Fred Herzog of Vancouver and Montreal's Alain Paiement.

The award, developed two years ago by Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky and Jane Nokes, director of Scotiabank's fine art collection, recognizes a distinguished body of work by a contemporary Canadian art photographer and strives to heighten that photographer's profile internationally.

Beyond the cash prize, the honoree gets to have his work published in a book prepared and distributed internationally by the distinguished Göttingen-based art house publisher Steidl. The winner also gets a solo exhibition at the Contact photography festival, held in Toronto each May since the mid-1990s.

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Currently the subject, until Sept. 16, of a survey exhibition titled Identifications at the National Gallery of Canada, the Montreal-born Maggs began his career as an artist in 1973, age 47. Previously, he'd been a highly successful graphic designer – one of his most famous projects is the cover for the legendary Jazz at Massey Hall recording from 1953 – and commercial photographer.

His art is distinguished by a quasi-taxonomical, near-mathematical rigour, evident from his earliest portraits, the now-famous multiples of the faces and shoulders of Joseph Beuys, Northrop Frye, Jane Jacobs and Yousuf Karsh, among others. Fascinated as well by typography, he has photographed hotel signs in Paris and the catalogue numbers of every vinyl release by the defunct Prestige jazz label, as well as the numbering system used to catalogue Mozart's complete compositional output.

Maggs also has been a collector and photographer of ephemera, most famously of 19th-century French mourning envelopes. In 1991, New York's Museum of Modern Art let him photograph the address books of the legendary Paris lensman Eugène Atget, the results mounted as an exhibition in Toronto in 1997 titled Repertoire. A recipient in 2006 of a Governor-General's Award for lifetime achievement in visual and media arts, Maggs in recent months has posed for and shot a series of "self-portraits," inspired by the famous Pierrot photographs of Felix Nadar from 1855.

As for future endeavours, Maggs told an interviewer earlier this year that he wants "to learn to play the harmonica. Steve Jobs' motto was 'Stay hungry, stay foolish.' There's some wisdom there."

The three finalists for this year's Scotiabank prize, announced in March, were culled by three jurors from a long list of 12 nominees: William Ewing, director of curatorial projects, Thames & Hudson (publishers), London; Karen Love, manager of grants and publications, Vancouver Art Gallery; and Ann Thomas, curator of photography at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Each of this year's runners-up – Paiement, 52, and Herzog, 82 – receives $5,000. Herzog, who came to Canada from his native Germany in 1952, has become famous in recent years for his colour photographs of Vancouver street life – a project that has been ongoing for more than five decades.

Paiement, currently a professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, has been a major figure in contemporary photo circles for more than 25 years, best known for his deconstructive approach to the photographic image, particularly as it pertains to interiors and architecture. Paiement attended the SPA ceremony but Herzog, who's been in ill health, did not.

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Last year's SPA winner, the first, in fact, Lynne Cohen, currently has a solo exhibition at the Design Exchange in Toronto as part of Contact 2012. Maggs's solo show for Contact is scheduled for next year.

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