E-I-E-I-OMG! Check out these stunning portraits from the 'Stanley Cup of agriculture'

Toronto's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is the biggest event of its kind, but it's a secret world to many city dwellers.

Why one Toronto photographer is paying tribute to the people (and animals) of The Royal

Mercedes Goldberger holds a Flemish Giant Rabbit. Southern Ontario's Dominion Rabbit and Cavy Association. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)

Every fall, the country comes to the city. And it does it in a big way.

Toronto's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair wins the red ribbon for size. It's the largest combo agricultural fair/equestrian competition in the world, the place where the best of the best gets decided — the best pig, the best pumpkin, the best pinot noir. 

"This is the Stanley Cup of agriculture, at least in Canada," says Peter Andrew Lusztyk, and this year, the photographer made it his mission to capture the star players.

With the permission of The Royal, Lusztyk brought a portable studio inside the event earlier this month, and for 10 days he shot hundreds of volunteer models — both human and livestock.

The resulting photo essay, People and Animals of the Royal Fair, includes more than just the champs.

The intention was to show off how truly unbelievable these animals are and how proud the people are of them.- Peter Andrew Lusztyk, photographer

"A lot of the stuff that I photograph, I really like to focus on stuff that is overlooked or regarded as unremarkable," says Lusztyk, who's perhaps best known for his aerial photography. (CBC Arts tagged along on one of his helicopter trips last year, when he took us behind the scenes of his Highways series.)

"The Royal Fair, to these people, it means everything and it's a really important competition, but I think a lot of people who live in the city, they're barely aware that this even goes on."

Farming isn't his world, anyway. Lusztyk's a city kid — raised in Ottawa and based in Toronto. As a freelance photographer, his clients include Apple and Hyundai and Molson-Coors. Part of his fascination with The Royal is that he comes as a "complete outsider."

"The intention was to show off how truly unbelievable these animals are and how proud the people are of them," he explains.

Greg Oakes of Elora, Ont. and his champion bronze turkey. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Madeline Howard and her silkie hen, Mt. Albert, Ont. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)

The photos are studio portraits — peeps and beasts against the same indigo backdrop. In tone and subject matter, it feels like Good Breeding, a series by Yann Arthus Bertrand that captures more than a decade of his trips to agricultural shows. Lustyk's a fan, though he says his series is meant to be less nationalistic in flavour than the French photographer's.

The mood here is simple but serious. As for the mood on location, it was, predictably, as wild as a barnyard. Lusztyk had worked with animals before, but not like this. "I had to learn what the hell I was doing, basically," he laughs.

I've got two minutes to shoot this photo and then this giant cow is going to have to go to the bathroom.- Peter Andrew Lusztyk

"Even on a 12-foot background when you're shooting with a Clydesdale horse or an 1,800 pound bull, it's a challenge to have the room you need," he says. And on top of that, there were crowds to contend with. The Royal can attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. (The 2013 edition brought in 312,000.) "It became a bit of a spectacle," he says of his shoot days — which just adds to the stress of the job.

"I've got two minutes to shoot this photo and then this giant cow is going to have to go to the bathroom," he says.

Beyond certain hazards, though, he found there's not much difference between shooting people and pigs — and the dozens of unusual breeds that the average preschool education in farm animals woefully overlooks.

"Some pose and look stoic and it's easy. And other animals, they can't stay still and don't want to cooperate," he says. "It's weird. I guess it goes between species, that innate knowledge of knowing how to pose for a picture."

"I think the real main thing I want to get across through it is just a respect for these people," says Lusztyk — the folks of all ages who travel from around the country to compete. "They come here, and it takes a lot of money and hard work to show off what they're capable of."

"I want there to be a dignity expressed. That's the main thing."

Enjoy some selections from the series.

Keith Todd and sheep, Todd Sheep Company Inc. of Lucknow, Ont. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Sylvie Dionne and King, a two-and-a-half-year-old boer goat. La Chevrerie des Belles Amours, L'Islet, Que. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Lee Brien and sons with sheep. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Monica Veit and llama, Sonny's Llama Farm, Delhi, Ont. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Steve Webster poses with a Silver Spangled Hamburg Hen. It's not his. According to Lusztyk, the proud owner doesn't appear in the shot. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Joanna Lattimer and feathered friend, Ridgeway, Ont. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Hunter Morten with pony. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Bryan Morano and Dirty Deeds, a Simmental bull. Orillia, Ont. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Dale Asser and her supreme champion bull. Hill Haven Shorthorns of Duntroon, Ont. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Paul Thibodeau and his Highland calf. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Glen Beckett and his five-year-old Holstein, Luster. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Delwyn Longhurst and Fawn the dwarf goat. Delshire Farm, Muskoka, Ont. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)
Bennett Nyenhuis and pig, St. Pails, Ont. (Courtesy of Peter Andrew Lusztyk)

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.


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