It was a moment of serendipity.
Photographer Al Popil had some auto racing photos he was hoping to sell and St. Albert Gazette editor Duff Jamison was open to buying them. It was a good fit so Popil started supplying the paper with photos, receiving $10 for each one that was published.
“It really brightened up the paper,” Jamison said. “Eventually we couldn’t do without him.”
That’s how Popil, at 19 or so, became the Gazette’s first full-time photographer. It was 1976.
At that time the idea of a community newspaper having a full-time shooter was unheard of. For Popil, it meant a lot of driving around looking for “enterprise shots” because there wasn’t much news happening in the quiet community at that time. Still, he didn’t have trouble finding people doing slightly unique things who were willing to be photographed.
“The enterprising back then was a lot easier than it is today because now everybody figures if you’ve got a camera and you’re taking a picture of a kid, you’re a pervert,” Popil said.
Popil had three stints totalling about 13 years at the Gazette between 1976 and 1995. The job provided him the opportunity to explore his own interests, one of which was the military. During his time at the Gazette Popil made connections with the Canadian Forces and was able to arrange flights with the Snowbirds Demonstration Team and visit the north Atlantic in a submarine.
“You get to do things the general public just doesn’t get a chance to do, but through your eyes they can,” he said.
Shootin’ the breeze
A few years after Popil came aboard, photographer David Dodge also joined the team.
“He showed up one day and he had pictures of ducks on a pond in Bon Accord,” Jamison said. The Gazette started running Dodge’s photos for $10 each, just as it had with Popil.
“After a while I couldn’t do without him either,” Jamison said.
So Dodge became a full-time photographer and, due to his excellent writing skills, also became the Gazette’s first environment reporter, Jamison said.
Dodge remembers the Gazette as a place filled with young, talented people who were encouraged to follow their interests. This quickly led to him writing a regular environment column called Surroundings.
But photojournalism was his passion. He was constantly on the lookout for compelling visuals and published a lot of photo essays.
“At the Gazette we could do almost anything,” Dodge said. “It was the best job you could have.”
The Gazette has been a springboard for many photographers to break into careers with major daily newspapers.
Former staffer Lyle Aspinall, now with the Calgary Sun, had all but given up on a career as a news photographer. Though he was trained as a photojournalist, he was languishing as the editor of a small weekly when a full-time photographer position opened up at the Gazette. Aspinall hounded editor Sue Gawlak until she decided his persistence had earned him the job.
“Without it, I’m not sure how I would have ever accomplished my goal of making a career out of full-time newspaper photography,” Aspinall said.
“I knew going in that the Gazette had an incredible history of photography awards and accolades, and that some of Canada’s top photojournalists had been through there, like Jason Franson and Darryl Dyck,” he said.
The uncompromising demand for excellence from Gawlak and the Gazette’s long-serving head photographer April Bartlett meant he always felt the need to make miracles out of the mundane, he said.
“That’s the mark of a good photographer — turning an otherwise everyday scene into a photograph that makes people go, ‘Whoa! That’s awesome,'” he said.
There is one photo from his time at the Gazette that remains in Aspinall’s portfolio because it illustrates the principle of turning nothing into something. It’s a closeup shot of a swimmer with her arm emerging from the water, with droplets frozen in mid-air as they descend to the pool. Aspinall shot it at Fountain Park pool in January 2007.
“The low winter sun was beaming in through one of the pool’s west-facing windows, casting beams of spotlight across the pool, and as the swimmer went through, I would expose for daylight and therefore let the background fall into blackness,” Aspinall explained.
As the swimmer swam lap after lap, Aspinall shot photo after photo. It took him an hour to get what he was looking for: sharp focus, a strong face and a suitably dark background.
“It was rewarding because it was a completely natural shot, with only available light,” he said. “The swimmer wasn’t even aware I was there until I approached her at the end to get her name.”
Not just point and click
Bartlett explained that her job as a news photographer is to capture the best moment at every event she attends, even if it’s a mundane news conference or a routine school event.
“You could be there for an hour with this event then something out of one of the kids says it all on their face and you know you’ve snapped that picture,” she said. “You just feel it. You go ‘yeah, I got it. I got the best out of that moment.'”
It’s still rare for community newspapers to have staff photographers, as small newsroom staffs require reporters to do double duty as photographers for their story assignments. But Jamison learned long ago the value of top quality photographs that only dedicated professionals can achieve.
“It would seem self evident when you get a good picture on your front page but it’s just a critical part of the business,” he said. “We got into it and stayed with it.”
For most of its recent history the Gazette has operated with two full-time photographers. There’s one on duty every day of the year except Christmas day.
The shooter on duty handles pre-scheduled assignments and searches for feature photo opportunities. Armed with a police and fire radio scanner, the photographer also reacts to any news that happens.
“We can’t predict the future,” Jamison explained. “It would be rather embarrassing if city hall burned to the ground on the day that we didn’t have somebody on.”