Over 2022, LiveWire Calgary’s photojournalist Aryn Toombs has been documenting the people that have made up the news. Here is a selection of some of his favourite portraits from the past year—of which there have been many—and his personal recollections of why these people were in front of the camera lens and what it took to photograph them.
Mayor Jyoti Gondek
April 22 was supposed to be a day of wonders. A Parade of Wonders if you will.
Darren Krause and I arranged with the Mayor’s office to try something completely unheard of at a news organization at the time: we wanted to make an action figure of Mayor Gondek for the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo using a combination of photogrammetry and LIDAR. With the mayor heading up the parade, which had been on hiatus for years because of the pandemic, I had just 10 minutes to turn around a portrait and a 3D scan before having to rush to the other side of downtown to capture all of the other costumes.
The mayor’s costume had been a closely held secret, even amongst the journalists ans staff at City Hall. What I ended up using was a single flash held up by a member of the mayor’s staff, instead of setting up a light stand and taking up precious time. What I ended up with was a dramatic, highly contrasted photo that stood apart from anything else I had shot of the mayor up to that point.
That quick low ISO, single flash bulb look would be something I repeated throughout 2022 with the mayor at a variety of events when she was in costume. Be that in Flames jersey for the run for the cup, or the mayor’s Halloween costume reveal.
What makes this series of portraits stand out for me is that it’s something I’ve never been able to do with any other politician over my career. Overt the past decade I’ve photographed two sitting Prime Ministers of Canada, four Premiers of Alberta, countless MPs and MLAs, and even more municipal councillors across southern Alberta. But Mayor Gondek stands out as the only politician I’ve been able to make a series of portraits of in the same style, in a single year.
People changing the perceptions of what Calgary is
Setting up to shoot a portrait of Sikapinakii Low Horn at the Carriage House Inn for the First Nations Princess crowning ceremony was interesting because at the time I had no idea how often I would be photographing her post-coronation. It also meant setting up a light stand and umbrella in between other journalists and photographers, and even hungry buffet goers. Low Horn ended up defining for the new generation of Stampede Princesses what it means to hold that honour, through her work in 2022.
Sometimes portraits are a study in logistics. For Mark Garner it was hauling many bags worth of light stands, umbrellas, and strobes onto the dog park roof of the Calgary Downtown Association’s building, through many doors and down some slim hallways. And for Andrew Yule it was braving the dense clouds of mosquitoes during a hot July evening while still having the right stands, modifiers, and strobes to do the job.
Both portraits are like bookends to a topic of how do we redefine the city. Be it downtown revitalization, or preservation of our green spaces.
I’ve shot a few photo assignments at Platform Calgary over the past year, and conquering the steep stairs which also make up the presentation seats, while at the same time trying to get just the right angle can be a difficult challenge. Over the past year the discussion over what it means to be a truly inclusive city has grown, and so too has that conversation grown in the burgeoning tech industry. Photographing the IncluCity Calgary team was a challenge not only because of those stairs, but also because of the different light levels in the room due to light and shadow from the large windows that overlook the stage.
Caring for others
Health care continued to be a major challenge for Albertans this year, as were the growing fears that surround having insufficient care in times of need. As part of the coverage we did this year, I created a pair of portraits for stories on the province’s plans to remove access to diabetic care via insulin pumps, and then the Calgary Fire Department providing emergency transport for a sick child after no ambulances were available.
The portrait of Keith Simmons was an exercise in the careful placement of flashes so that the reflections didn’t end up in the large wall mirror behind him, in his dining room. The second was a setup photograph during a media scrum, worked into a portrait with the addition of an off-camera flash and a little bit of coaxing of the Station 6 officers.
Parks Foundation Calgary has given me multiple opportunities to create fun portraits over the last year of CEO Sheila Taylor, and various athletes at numerous park openings and groundbreakings over 2022. Taylor shooting hoops was a fun way of showing off a beautiful blue-sky day at the opening of the Bridgeland basketball courts. With a powerful strobe and the f-stops reduced by 2/3 to make it look like it’s the sun illuminating Taylor, it was a way of creating some drama in what was a shaded and dark part of the court early in the morning.
The second foundation portrait was one in motion, with Danika White doing loops around the South Glenmore Pump Track in order to get the perfect angle and the perfect timing.
Usually, when I shoot portraits, it’s with the goal of avoiding showing how the shot is made. But with Skinny at the Green Fools Theatre Society, and how much their space was designed around showing off how the magic of circus was made, thematically it seemed appropriate to include the soft-boxes in the picture itself.
Creating a portrait of Calgary International Film Festival executive director Steve Schroeder ended up being a fun way of including various elements of CIFF’s interactive media and red-carpet experiences into a single portrait. Schroeder stepped into the 360 camera setup for one of the red carpets done for the opening films of the festival while donning a VR headset used as part of the CIFF media and game experience.
Lonny Balbi was another fun person to photograph using the already existing elements at the inaugural Taste of Italy Festival in Bridgeland. One off-camera flash was to increase the contrast in the photo and to bring out some of the details in the vintage Vespa as part of the Instagramable booth set up for the festival.
Doing a portrait of Aardnor Miniatures at the Calgary Maker Faire was a way of showing off both the incredible creations and the passion that makers have in the city.
Throughout the year, I covered a variety of stories about people that were working to redefine how we look at the city. From the largest of projects through city leaders like Kate Thompson at CMLC, to architects and place makers like Julian Warring and Joshua Bateman. To artists like Rawry & Pohly and Cassie Suche.
For the latter artists, I photographed them against the murals they created that now have come to redefine parts of Chinatown and the East Village Riverwalk. And for Warring and Bateman, capturing the location where the placemaking was to occur was equally as important as capturing the people themselves. Warring sitting at an emblematic location that was in need of public activation, and Bateman at a site near his home where he wanted to create planters to further create accessible and sustainable food for the community.
Thompson herself was photographed at CMLC’s HQ in the East Village against the backdrop of awards and accolades that the organization has garnered since 2007 when it was created. Each demonstrates the recognition and respect that the city and CMLC has gained over the past 15 years for their transformative work in creating a vibrant community on the east end of downtown Calgary.
Photographing McConnell was one of a series of portraits I created for the announcement that Nitro Rallycross was coming to Calgary in 2023. As Jamaica’s top motorsport athlete, McConnell was rightfully proud of including pop culture elements that continue to be sources of pride for the nation. In this case the lucky egg from Cool Runnings. I’m always looking to find something about a person I photograph that I can share with readers that makes them more human, and more relatable, and this was one of those elements that came up in post-press conference conversation that immediately stuck out as that relatable element with a good story.
Like any good editor, Darren Krause likes to assign me at least one impossible task per week. At the beginning of the playoffs between Calgary and Edmonton, it was a task to go out into the city and find people wearing the jerseys of both teams. That was something I achieved by luck (and luck is a big part of being a photojournalist) by being at the right place at the right time on 17 Avenue while working on a completely unrelated story.
The Flames run was also a goldmine for portraits of everyday Calgarians at the Red Lot. The one I selected was just an emblematic portrait of a young fan who absolutely wanted to have his excitement captured by the media and then disappeared into the crowd immediately afterward.
The announcement of a new professional sports team in the city is a rare occurrence, and so it seemed appropriate to do something a cut above a podium shot of Usman Tahir Jutt and Jason Ribeiro as they formally announced the Calgary Surge as Calgary’s newest sports franchise and only professional basketball team. This was also a portrait where the careful pre-selection of equipment was important, with the right type of light stand and the right size of umbrella required to get the look, but also fit into a very packed conference room at Winsport.
People and pooches
It simply wouldn’t have been a good year without me putting at least a few photographs of dogs into the paper. Fortunately, the opportunity arose on several occasions, with CANTF2 handler Clayton Terletski at Telus Spark, Lyle Dietrich with BC and Alberta Guide Dogs, and then a pretty dope dog with PAWS Dog Daycare.
The mainstay of many a photojournalist in Calgary is doing portraits of prominent business figures, small business owners, leaders, and entrepreneurs. Where the portraits are taken is oftentimes of equal importance in telling the story of these figures of industry. For Neil Godsman, it was about presenting Bite Grocers in a way that reflected their mission to help the Calgary Community Fridge. For Kevin Franco, dually connected to both Platform Calgary and the Calgary Public Library, photographing him with those two elements was important to visually demonstrate him as an entrepreneur. And for Maxim Olshevsky, who LWC has covered multiple times this year for the charity work that he has done for those in need including those within Calgary’s Ukrainian community, photographing him at the corner of what would become a vibrant new residential tower from the decay of a neglected office tower was equally import to showing him as a property developer with a mission.
Photographing Lynx Air CEO Merren McArthur was the beginning of an unusual assignment this year: To fly from Calgary to Vancouver and back to document the creation of a new airline. Having McArthur proudly hold up a model of their Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in the Lynx livery at a slight angle that caused the nose of the model to go beyond the Lynx backdrop, was a way of subtly showing readers how the airline was planning on going beyond the boilerplate of a low-cost airline.
Every so often a backdrop presents itself so perfectly as to demand a portrait to be made. And that was the case of Diego and Tomas Romero who were undertaking a challenge to become the Guinness Book of World Records holders for the world’s largest Cuba Libre. They succeeded, and so did the portrait of them in the first shot.
Shooting a portrait of Chris Green in his workshop was not a one-and-done. I worked with Green to create a series of portraits using multiple lights and different shutter speeds to capture both the subtle movements of his hammer and the glowing heat of the metal he was working on that would eventually become a knife. As a process, it was metaphorical for Green as a former archeologist, working methodically to uncover what was hidden underneath his work.
And lastly, the portrait of Heather Oliphant at the typewriter was an example of how to create something fun with both a flash and the sun, and ending up with a portrait that looks entirely unlike just a simple snapshot at curbside in Inglewood.
Photographing Jim Fraser on a cold April morning was an exercise in working with difficult lighting conditions. I used settings that underexposed the background, alongside a high-power strobe in the middle of the street in order to give some drama and gravitas that reflected the months of work to come by the City of Calgary. Work that was being delayed that month by heavy snow during late spring.
Portraits of Jonathan Acoby and Peter Oliver on the surface don’t necessarily seem alike, but they both reflect a certain amount of relief. For Acoby, it was something as simple as a haircut that would allow him to get back on track toward meaningful employment. And for Oliver, it was the relief of having a beer at the Ship and Anchor, free from the many months of protests and marches that drove away business from the 17 Avenue BIA and surrounding Beltline businesses.
Photographing Carla Favell was a way of highlighting the work that Calgary’s first responder agencies have done during the past year to empower young women. It was also one of the many portraits I did during the year of more senior figures in the services like Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld and Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth, but this one stands out.
An ode to 2023
It only took over a year of working for LiveWire Calgary before I took new portraits of Darren. Following the work that we did to revamp our website, and to put a renewed focus on helping readers navigate the news, it was time to revamp the images used on the website of our founder and editor.
The Rundle Ruins were the perfect location for this, representing both a mix of the old and the new. And how we build a better tomorrow on the foundation of the hard work that has been done today.
Most of these portraits were shot on Aryn’s favourite camera, a Canon 5d Mark III, and Canon L series mark II f2.8 16-36mm wide angle lens. Sadly that camera gave up the ghost in December, after taking tens of thousands of photographs from the top of the Rocky Mountains, to the depths of the Sahara Desert and everywhere in between.
For more on Aryn’s work over the past year, see the year in review for his top photos of 2022.