For more than 10 years, Oscar “Jimmy” Gonzalez has been contributing word pictures monthly in The Daily Iberian through his column, Teche Sketches, appearing today as a complement to his story about an upcoming photographic exhibit at the Main Branch of the Iberia Parish Library during the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival celebrations. His first show in 30 years, Gonzalez has been building up to this retrospective with great anticipation. The native from Jeanerette combined his passion for the arts — photography and writing — with his vocation in the sugar industry which ultimately carried him around the world. The forthcoming exhibit, however, stays closer to home. “Louisiana Reflections: A Photographic Memoir” is a black and white tale of his southern life experiences and observations.
“In my 50 years or so of looking at Louisiana through a camera’s viewfinder, I’ve always been amazed by her diverse people, physical features and changing moods,” Gonzalez said. “Some of the images here date from my student days at USL and others are recent. They are all, however, my homage to the place of my birth, a tribute offered with the deepest affection.”
Although Gonzalez uses both film and digital cameras, the black and white work is done with the former.
“I find that film can enrich a photograph with a special luminosity. All of the prints in the exhibit are silver gelatin,” he said.
Partly as a tourist and later because of his work in the sugar industry, Gonzalez has traveled the world. After graduation from USL, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, with a degree in photography and etching, he saw an ad for a job seeking an archeological illustrator. His adventures began.
“These are the people who once an archeologist discovers something, they would bring it to me and with a special pen I would draw, to scale, all the fine details,” Gonzalez said. “I was very blessed to see and touch in my hands, Roman coins, brooches, scissors — you wouldn’t believe the different things they would find. I did that about six or seven years.”
The work as an archeological illustrator began in England but the enjoyment of exploring the many cultures of the world continued.
“I lived in Chester, Lincoln and York, and Yorkshire. I loved England and chose there,” he said, “But I was in love with our sugar industry. I stayed out one semester to work the grinding in St. Mary Sugar Co-Op in Jeanerette. I loved it. I started in the lab and then went to the pan floor. To me it was a combination of art and science — which is actually what photography is also. That’s what I started doing and they started sending me to seminars at LSU.”
When the call came that a company needed a consultant in the tropics, Gonzalez said as a 26-year-old man, his first thought was, “Where’s the next plane.”
“My first gig abroad was in Belize, back then it was called British Honduras. I went as a pan floor consultant. That’s where the sugar is cooked,” Gonzalez said. “This resulted in a career that lasted over 30 years.”
His father was a physician in Jeanerette and instilled in Gonzalez the idea of adventure, to explore the world outside of the small Louisiana town. Not because he wanted Gonzalez to leave home, but to broaden his horizons and understanding of the world.
“The door of the world is waiting for you to cross the threshold, he said to me,” Gonzalez said. “Then I went to Bolivia. After my work, I stopped back by the Andes for a little R&R, and oh my goodness, What an experience to see the rooftop of the world. From the jungles to the snow peaks.”
The adventures both within and outside of the U.S. continued until retirement. He was willing to go and the “world was his oyster.”
“Go while you can, you never know what might happen, my father would say. The last assignment, I had three choices. The final offer was given to me for a new African sugar factory in the Sudan. I packed my bag and traveled with others from Louisiana. The fields were irrigated from the Nile, the largest factory at the time in the world. I learned a lot. I stayed there seven months.”
In 1980 following a factory accident back in the Teche Area, which took a lengthy recovery, Gonzalez did not get back to the sugar industry for 10 years and only to finish until retirement. He was at the Jeanerette factory until it closed.
The photography was always part of his life, but the exhibit on Sept. 26 is focused on south Louisiana. He could mount another on sugar cane and one on international travel. He also studied creative writing for two years and began sending out stories which after a few rejections, began to be published around the world.
“It made me happy to know that as I was sleeping, people around the world were reading my travel stories,” Gonzalez said. “I’d send them my stories and my pictures. I have such a large body of work. But I love working as a columnist for the paper. Now this is my first show.”