Elegance of Industry

Photographer Charles Martin chronicles life along the River Parishes.

Some people explore their heritage in dusty courthouse and church archives or in stories trapped in the mist of memories of aging family elders. Charles Martin explores his connection to the past through the lens of his camera as he travels the marshes, swamps, rivers and land of his native St. James Parish in Louisiana’s river region.

Like most rural Louisianians, Martin has deep connections to nature and the land. His past and his present are images of the River Road where sugar cane fields and perique tobacco farms slowly disappear into distant cypress swamps and river barges glide silently up and down the river to distant ports. This is the life he has known and now photographs. 

Over the past decade, he has compiled a stunning portfolio of photographs of this world in a conscious effort to document not only the beauty of the natural landscape but also a way of life. His photographs of a moonlit ship on the Mississippi, a misty oak alley, the pink hue of a setting sun reflected in the glass-like surface of a cypress lake, the wispy feathers of a snowy egret or the periscope eyes of an inquisitive frog have clarity and beauty that come with an understanding of light, shadows, weather and an innate sensitivity to the landscape that envelopes him.

Each shot is planned with locations scouted well in advance. He studies the angles of a rising sun or moon, direction of the wind and currents and temperature to learn where he should place himself to capture that right moment.

“If I want a sunrise as back lighting, I have to know the direction of the wind and the angle of the sun,” he says. “If I want a moonrise, I have to scout the location to get just the right reflection across the water. I scouted one spot for two years because I needed to know the wind direction, the angle of the moon and cloud conditions. Sitting out there during a moonrise is as peaceful as you can get.”

Martin, who resides in Grand Point and owns Café Perique in Gramercy, is mostly a self-taught photographer who got into the medium indirectly. Although he always had an interest in photography even as a child, he didn’t begin to study it seriously until about 10 years ago, thanks to his oldest daughter, Erin. The two of them often hunted together in the marshes and swamps –– until she saw Louisiana nature photographer Julia Sims’ book Manchac Swamp. That inspired Erin to shoot wildlife with a camera rather than a gun. She has gone on to win awards and recognition for her work, including a student scholarship to a North American Nature Photography Association conference where she met some of the best nature photographers in the nation.

Martin’s interest in nature photography also increased. He read photography magazines and took photography classes and workshops and joined the Louisiana Photographic Society, which sponsors seminars and mentoring sessions with professionals. He, too, was inspired by the work of Julia Sims and nature photographer C.C.

Lockwood. As his knowledge in the medium increased, he purchased more sophisticated camera equipment to capture speed and light. Like most experienced professional photographers, he began with high-grade slide film but then switched to digital photography. The results are remarkable.

Although Martin continues to hunt, he soon realized that hunting was secondary to simply being deep in the watery wilderness of South Louisiana with only his camera and his senses open to the landscape. Ansel Adams once said photography “is a way of telling what you feel about what you see.” Martin’s words are in his superb images, images that draw viewers into the conversation. “I have always loved the outdoors,” he says. “It’s peaceful being around nature. I might catch a baby nutria or a small alligator and let them go or build a tree stand to see a rookery and watch the nature of birds. I love it. I’m trying to photograph out-of-the-way places where people can’t get to without a boat. I get out there before the sunrise and sunset. The best light is 30 minutes after sunset. I’m trying to highlight the beauty and show a habitat that we don’t want to lose. I’m the only person I know who is working on getting a photograph of a yellow crown night heron in its rookery. It’s just being out there.”

In recent years “out there” has included the Manchac Swamp and nearby Lake Maurepas, Lake Verret, Lake Fausse Pointe, Lac Des Allemands and various waterways that branch out like dark arteries into the wilderness. All are within a 30-minute or one-hour drive from his home in St. James Parish. 

Getting “out there” is not easy, and it can be dangerous for those who don’t know the swamps. “Louisiana’s natural beauty is so underexposed because so much of it is hard to reach,” says Martin. At first, he used airboats to get deep into the marshes and swamps, but state and federal officials no longer permit them in government wildlife-management areas. He now uses small and shallow-draft boats called Go-Devils and Gator-Tails that are made in Louisiana to help hunters and trappers –– and photographers –– penetrate the state’s thick, watery landscape.

Martin is not restricting his lens to swamps and marshes. He also has begun photographing shipping along the Mississippi River and industries on the River Road as part of a series on the River Parishes and the culture there.

He once did a freelance photo shoot for the Port of South Louisiana, which gave him access to industries that he ordinarily wouldn’t have. “It’s hard to get close to industries on the river with a camera,” he says with a laugh.

But most important, he wants to show the “elegance of industry,” especially the sugar cane and perique tobacco farms that can still be found along the river. Because his grandfather Jacob Martin was a tobacco farmer in St. James Parish, Martin and his family are known and trusted. “I grew up on a small farm with tobacco fields and driving tractors in cane fields,” he says. “These people know who I am, and I respect them, and they respect me.

That opens doors for me. To get the most intimate shots, I get in their way and bring off a different angle and point of view than other photographers. I get in their space when they’re putting tobacco in barrels to cure. Those images take you there. When I’m photographing a cane field, I’m lying on the ground in one of the rows with a tractor passing in the row next to me. You feel like you’re there. It’s being in the culture.” He is trying to show the connection between tobacco and sugar cane farming and the factories and mills that process the sugar and tobacco –– or, as he says, “from the farm to the mill.” 

Martin has other plans on the horizon. One day, he hopes to photograph South Louisiana’s troubled commercial fishing industry by working on trawlers, but that’s for another day.

To see Martin’s photographs, visit www.eyesonthebayou.com

Categories: Theatre + Art