Seven Miles Deep: Mining Faces from the Owen Fitzgerald Collection.
Randall White is the author of Voice of Region: On the Long Journey to
Senate Reform in Canada, Too Good to Be True: Toronto in the 1920s, and
Global Spin: Probing the Globalization Debate.
When you realize that the pictures in this moving photo essay were taken by one person over a 20-year period, that the location in almost every case was a grimy mine often deep under the Atlantic ocean, and that the photographer had to be exceptionally careful lest his camera give off a spark that could have explosive and hence deadly results, you sense that this was a labour of both love and great skill. And when you read that Owen Fitzgerald donated the entire collection to the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University, you become aware that you are holding a piece of history.
In his introduction, Fitzgerald notes that from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s when he took most of the pictures, “there were four operating mines in Cape Breton, employing almost 5,000 people. … During its heyday during and prior to the Second World War, almost 20,000 men worked in the mines. In 2007 [when this book was published] there were no working mines” left. Flipping through page after page of often smiling faces of miners covered in sweat and coal dust, you realize the truth often expressed throughout Cape Breton, that these coal miners had two families, one on the surface and the other deep underground. Throughout this era, other Canadians and the world at large were alerted from time to time as to how dangerous coal mining can be; periodic explosions, usually from methane gas, took many lives and injured many more. While the rest of us are probably glad to see the end of coal mining, this is a sentiment retired Cape Breton miners probably don’t share. They will look at photographer Fitzgerald’s artistry with mixed feelings. One thing for sure, this book will be unmatched as a moving reminder of the most memorable chapter in Cape Breton’s long and colourful story.