"Sweet season: Photographer documents sugar cane industry"

"Sweet season: Photographer documents sugar cane industry"

By: Barri Bronston

Growing up in New Iberia, La., photographer David Armentor, digital imaging specialist at the Tulane University School of Architecture, had an up-close view of the area’s thriving sugar cane industry.


“Bayou Teche was on one side, and the cane fields were on the other side,” he says. Although he relocated to New Orleans many years later, the images of the area’s iconic planting and harvesting seasons were always imbedded in his mind — farmers tending to the fields, sunrise at the cooling ponds, rows of trucks waiting to carry the cane to the mills.

In 2004, he had a yearning to document the industry, and thus began “The Sugar Mill Sessions,” an ongoing photographic project that focuses on sugar production in Southwest Louisiana. 

On display at Cole Pratt Gallery, 3800 Magazine St., through Aug. 17, the exhibition offers a comprehensive view of the industry and the culture that surrounds it, with each of three chapters exploring a different theme and represented in a particular stylistic approach.

“I worked mostly at night during the harvesting season months of September through January, which gave way to a more expressive capture of the industry,” Armentor says. “This direction allowed me to give a unique perspective to an industry where ‘sense of place’ is often viewed as burdensome or vexatious.”

Armentor documented the industry by following an eighth-generation family of planters and spending time at three Iberia Parish mills. The chapters include a 19th-century capture of the planting season, a mid-century modern exploration of the harvest and a contemporary look at the local culture surrounding the sugar industry. 

In a July 16 review, Gambit newspaper art critic D. Eric Bookhardt said the exhibit  is reminder “that we live in a strange state where exquisite natural beauty coexists with industrial incursions. Armentor’s images illustrate sugar’s infernal, yet almost romantic legacy.”





"Sugar Cane Trucks, Cajun Mill, 2012 Harvest Season" by David Armentor is among his photographs of the Louisiana sugar cane industry on display at Cole Pratt Gallery through Aug. 17. 


Emily Wilkerson From Pelican Bomb Reviews The "Sugar Mill Sessions"

From minimal landscapes of sugar cane fields to abstract compositions of mill machinery, David Armentor documents the many facets of south Louisiana’s sugar industry. Organized into chapters, what is most captivating about “The Sugar Mill Sessions” is Armentor’s approach to each chapter as distinct. Each relies on different photographic techniques, including various lenses, to transform a common subject into a more complex and subtle investigation of shifting agricultural conditions and histories.

Sunrise at the Cooling Ponds, Cajun Mill, 2012, is one of three large photographs on display that focuses on the sky. Part of Armentor’s newest study of what he describes as the culture of the industry in the chapter “After the Harvest,” these images actually picture the vast lands and sweeping horizons surrounding the fields and mills. Their soft colors contrast the black-and-white abstracted machines across the room, a reminder of how industrialization has transformed these areas. This sentiment is echoed byTrucks, Cajun Mill, 2012, a more recent addition to “The Harvest,” a chapter Armentor began around 2004. Four 18-wheelers and four shipping containers line a gravel parking lot, their heavy rectangular fronts mirroring each other across the work. The photograph’s simple geometries exemplify the modern, monumental structures that have not only displaced the gentle curves of ponds and trees throughout the state, but also the need for human labor in many industries.

In the row of eleven portraits that constitutes the “Planting Season” chapter, men stand alone or in small groups against landscapes that blur into the distance. Shot with a pre-Civil War-era lens, Armentor documents these field workers in the midst of a burgeoning sugar cane crop. The photograph’s sepia tones and the men's dutiful and honorable poses are reminiscent of the grandeur with which Civil War leaders were recorded. Adding to the ghostly quality of the fading portraits, Armentor has painted their surfaces with encaustic, creating a smoky overlay and seemingly sealing their contents in time. 

If we consider Armentor’s earliest, modernist images as charting the industrial advances in sugar production, his field portraits highlight the persistence of tradition and its emerging narratives. Sugar is one industry where individual workers remain present in the fields, carrying out tasks such as walking behind trucks, row after row, to drop seeds during planting season. Within the series of portraits, Mark Judice, an eighth generation New Iberia Mill farmer whose family owns the mill, stands alongside Jose Alberto Pacheco Gonzalez, one of the many field workers lining the wall from Mexico. Here, what began as a study of familiarity more than eight years ago evolves into a deeper cultural analysis, as Armentor continues to unearth the fertile dichotomies of a longstanding Southern industry and how it shapes both lives and communities.

"The Sugar Mill Sessions" on view until August 10 at Cole Pratt Gallery (3800 Magazine Street) in New Orleans. 

By: Emily Wilkerson


Eric Bookhardt Reviews The Sugar Mill Sessions



Long before Louisiana struck “black gold” in the form of oil, there was a thriving “white gold” industry in the form of sugar. Both have sooty histories, but burning the cane fields at harvest time is a tradition that lingers because it is still the most efficient way to strip the stalks of their leaves on their way to the mill. Consequently, harvests can look almost apocalyptic, as we see in David Armentor’s photographs. The New Iberia native’s images encompass landscapes and industrial views of mill facilities like Sugar House (pictured), as well as portraits of cane workers, a varied assortment of Cajuns, Creoles and Hispanics. In his portraits, the workers appear in somewhat plutonic looking shrouds of cane smoke, as if the descendants of Longfellow’sEvangeline had entered the realm of Dante’s Inferno, reminding us again that we live in a strange state where exquisite natural beauty coexists with industrial incursions. Armentor’s images illustrate sugar’s infernal, yet almost romantic, legacy.

- D Eric Bookhardt