Sudbury Art Gallery hosts Louie Palu’s Cage Call exhibit
Photographs tell the story of Northern Ontario miners
A fascination with workers, particularly Northern Ontario miners, drove photographer Louie Palu’s Cage Call portrait project spanning 12 years.
Palu was born and raised in the northwest end of Toronto and had a strange connection to miners.
“They were my like my dad,” said Palu. “I grew up with workers. My dad was an Italian stonemason and my mother a seamstress.”
Encouraged by a high school photography teacher, Palu went on to graduate from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1991.
He interned for Mary Ellen Mark in New York City and was immediately shooting professionally.
Palu’s award-winning work has been featured in numerous magazines and newspapers, including The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Forbes, Washington Post, The Walrus and Macleans.
He has won several awards for his work, including Best of Photojournalism Award from the National Press Photographers Association, a Silver Medal from the Society of Newspaper Design for photography, and eight awards from the White House News Photographers Association.
In the same year he graduated Palu went on a self-funded month-long project to a Kirkland Lake mine where a friend of his father’s worked. He was hooked.
After that first visit, he continued to find opportunities in between other assignments to visit more mines. He started with the Macassa Mine in Kirkland Lake, and got to the Kerr Mine in Virginiatown, the Copper Cliff smelter, the Cheminis Mine in Larder Lake, the MacIntyre Mine in Schumacher, the Falconbridge smelter and the Kidd Creek Mine in Timmins.
“I would go underground every day,” said Palu in an interview from his Washington, D.C. Studio. “Mine owners loved what I was doing.”
He continued his research throughout the project, sifting through archives and the random photographs previously taken by George Hunter and Eddie Duke.
After 12 years of amassing hundreds of photographs of miners and their lives, he started to share them in exhibits and books.
“This history – what it was like working in the mines – had to be told,” he said. Palu discovered how Canadians are connected to the natural resources that surround them and how it shapes their identity.
His work was never just about taking photos, but understanding the role of the labour movement, company operations and the communities.
Although never planned, he captured a part of a miner’s life that they couldn’t even share with their families. It wasn’t until many years later when he brought the exhibit to the communities and met family members that he realized he was this outside person, a gatekeeper to the underground lives of miners that he exposed.
“There were some miners I went to work with for months. Sat there on a pile of rock capturing what they were doing.
Some have passed away, my favourite guys,” reflected Palu.
Tom Smart, special advisor to the Art Gallery of Sudbury, recommended Palu’s work because of how the photographs not only document the mining life but how Palu has interpreted the life of a miner in a very deep way.
The story he weaves touches on the union battles, the homes they lived in, the hockey they played and the bodily scars of a dangerous job.
“Louie wants you to engage with his work, he invites you in,” said Smart at the Art Gallery of Sudbury’s opening reception for the exhibit.
“He didn’t shy away from showing the danger of the work, that death is very front-of-mind when the miners go down in the cage,” said Smart.
Palu’s book, Cage Call, published in 2006, was a collaborative project with Charlie Angus, a journalist at the time and now Timmins-James Bay MP. Cage Call is now out of print, and there are only a few copies available at bookstores and galleries.
Palu is currently working on other projects, including one in Afghanistan, for which he was awarded the Alexia Foundation for Peace Professional Photography Grant in 2010.
The Art Gallery of Sudbury featured Cage Call: Life and Death in the Hard Rock Mining Belt as a prelude to its Nickel City Stories series. The exhibit ran from September 20th to November 18.
Visit www.louiepalu.com to view Palu’s work.