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An agrarian romance: Charles Martin’s 'Perique'

This article, written by Cate Zarnecki, is reposted from the literary news site Press Street: Room 220.

Cover for PERIQUE: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLES MARTIN. All images by Martin from the book, courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection (hnoc.org).

Cover for PERIQUE: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLES MARTIN. All images by Martin from the book, courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection (hnoc.org).

By Cate Czarnecki

The historical background of perique—a tobacco varietal considered by many to be the strongest and most flavorful in the world—makes it one of the state’s more interesting, if lesser known, agricultural stories. Originally cultivated by an Acadian farmer named Pierre “Perique” Chent in the early 1800s, “le tabac de perique” involves the pressure-fermentation of dried tobacco leaves in wooden barrels—a technique that is both historically rooted as well as extremely labor-intensive. Formerly one of the most sought-after tobacco strands, today perique is only grown on a 30-mile tract of land in St. James Parish, Louisiana, by a small community of farming families whose roots stretch back to the advent of the tradition.

This community and the tobacco they grow is the subject of a new exhibition and companion catalog by The Historic New Orleans CollectionPerique: Photographs by Charles Martin. The exhibition is on display at the HNOC’s Williams Research Center (410 Chartres St.) through March 16, and the handsome catalog is available in the museum’s gift shop.

Raised by a family of perique farmers, Charles Martin developed an interest in documentary photography during a serendipitous point in the crop’s history. His photographs capture the culture of the industry as it existed for almost 200 years, untainted for the most part by the encroachment of modernization and technology. As HNOC Director of Museum Programs’ John H. Lawrence describes in his introduction to the catalog, “It is not just the access that he has to the season cycle of growth and production that gives merit to his pictures, but his reverence for the historical nature of his subject and those earlier generations who work the same land….In the parlance coined by the late John Szarkowski, they are both a mirror and a window.”

The majority of the photographs in the collection document the relationship that exists between the farmers of St. James Parish and their crops. Martin captures each significant moment in the tobacco-growing process without unnecessary embellishment—his photographs and the organization of the catalogue exude the same austere, industrious work-ethic of the subjects of his work. Additionally, the overall composition of the book—which implements a bronze and brown color-scheme—is a perfect complement to the stark black-and-white photographs of the collection. Each photo is given a whole page adjacent to a simple expository sentence, a stylistic choice that allows both text and art the space required to breathe.

Many of Martin’s photographs bring to mind the work of Dorothea Lange, both in subject as well as composition. Evoking the deteriorating relationship between human beings and the land from which they made their living, Lange’s photographs of the Great Depression have become synonymous with classic American imagery as well as the emergence of documentary photography. Similar themes exist in Martin’s work, for instance the presence of clear gender roles: Traditionally, the women and children in the perique community manage the stripping and bundling of the tobacco leaves once they are harvested, with the men being entrusted to pack the barrels.

The inclusion of these aspects of agrarian life is both honest as well as enlightening—this is clearly a process that has undergone minimal change despite being more than 200 years old. However, unlike the period in which Lange was doing her work, Martin is not capturing the slow burning end of an era. Perique is, in fact, regaining much of its international stature as a boutique tobacco varietal, to the benefit of the farmers who have managed to preserve this unique way of life. But there are certain ghosts here that the exhibition and catalog seem to ignore. The weathered hands and faces in the photographs convey a kind of agrarian nostalgia, yet the subject itself is a widely known carcinogen. While the disconnect that exists here matters little to the quality of the work, it is something that seems at least worth acknowledging.

Overall, however, this collection conveys a positive outlook that manages to outshine all the negative associations people may have with Louisiana agriculture—or smoking tobacco. You don’t necessarily see the specter of slavery here, or entrenched systems of inequality; what you do see is a community united to raise these crops and protect this unique body of traditions. The photographs offer us a glimpse into a world where everyone is involved, and everyone is implicated in the success or failure of the season. To have this tiny fraternity of farmers captured in such a beautiful, simple way is to our benefit as viewers. We would never be allowed such insider access to this world, and yet, knowing that such a place exists just down the road is one of those things that makes Louisiana so special. There is such a thing as history suspended, and it exists in real time outside of our imagination. Proving this may be Martin and the collection’s most successful accomplishment.

Room 220 is a content partner of NolaVie.