David Armentor removes two cameras from protective coverings with a calm reverence and gently places them on his dining room table. One is a 1958 Yashica-MAT and the other a 4x5 Chamonix. He then explains that a third camera, a Mamiya M645 with a Petzval style lens (circa 1858) that he no longer owns, should also get credit for some of his early photographs. He rhapsodizes about the finer points of the three cameras, sharing what he thinks is the uniqueness of each and further explaining why he chose each to do images for his photographic project that he calls “The Sugar Mill Sessions.”
“My Chamonix and Mamiya both use my treasured Petzval style brass lens that allows me to make unique portraits,” he says.
“Almost ten years ago I began capturing the traits of the sugar mill culture as seen through the lenses of my cameras in what I thought would be a purely formal documentary presentation,” he explains as he sits in his historic, postage-stamp-size (640-square feet) home in New Orleans’ Garden District overlooking Lafayette Cemetery. He points to the thirty by forty inch photograph, entitled “Smokestack – Harvest Season,” hanging above the table and adds, “This is one of my favorite photographs and an example of the images I took for the series.”
He isn’t sure how many photographs he has taken to date, then he quickly calculates a number in his head, and adds, “I know it would have to be thousands of photographs, and I definitely know that I shot about sixty rolls of 120 film between the 2004 and 2006 harvest seasons when I was only capturing the September to December harvest season. Then in 2006 I started to look at the mills outside of the harvest, trying to capture the machinery lying dormant. I felt special strangeness thinking about how the mills violently run 24-7 for five months and then one day they are shut down and most of the workers go home. There is an eerie silence in the landscape when the mills go quiet for four months.”
His decade of work has followed the discipline of photographing what he knows, and he does know a lot about sugar mills. Born in sugar country just outside New Iberia in the small town of Loreauville (population about 1200), sugar mills and what he calls “the sugar mill culture” were all around him growing up.
“When the sugar mills were running there was a special rhythm in the community that you couldn’t escape,” he recalls, so much so that he even worked a few weeks planting sugarcane with a few friends when he was in high school. “It was just a few buddies picking up extra money during the summer,” he says, as he remembers the experience of riding on the back of a cane filled tractor trailer and laying stalks of sugar cane into ditches that had been cut into the rows.
There were four sugar mills within a twenty-mile radius of where Armentor grew up. “For people not in the industry it can be a bit of a nuisance during harvest time as tractors slow up traffic, the roads get muddy and the smell of harvest is a bit strange,” he says, then he adds with a smile, “But you acquire a fondness for it after a while.”
There is no doubt that the special beauty and drama was captured by the talented 31-year-old photographer, who graduated from Louisiana State University and who now works at Tulane University’s School of Architecture as the digital imaging specialist.
“I have attempted to capture my understanding of the cultural, economic and historical importance of the sugar cane industry from a personal, more stylized documentary point of view,” he answers, as he points to several of his framed photographs that hang in his home. “My body of work is broken up in three sections: harvest season, planting season and a cultural view.”
He adds that the harvest season is captured in a grainy, modernistic style that is meant to be very dramatic; the planting season is represented with portraits of the farmers, using a pre-civil war brass portrait lens to make the images have the look of the nineteenth century (these are coated in encaustic and are built up into plates). The culture side is portrayed with found objects around the mill, or something as unusual as the tiara of the Sugar Cane Queen.
While the sugar mill industry goes back to the earliest days of Louisiana when huge sugar cane plantations dotted the landscape on both banks of the Mississippi River and spread out to most of southern Louisiana, Armentor didn’t set out to chronicle that history. “When they dismantled the Iberia Mill in New Iberia, I felt a sense of sadness and realized that my photographs are now a part of history that no longer exists,” he says. “I often think about what a treasure the Enterprise Mill in Patoutville is with a rich history that dates back to 1825. Today it is the largest sugar cane mill in Louisiana.”
In addition to the Iberia Mill and Enterprise Mill, Armentor also photographed The Cajun Sugar Cooperative, Inc., in New Iberia and the Louisiana Sugarcane Cooperative in St. Martinsville. “It is important to note that some of the mills have always been operated by the same families. Think sugarcane in Louisiana and you automatically think about the Judice or the Patout families,” he explains. “My short stint planting sugarcane was done for Ricky Judice, the father of my friend Mark who grew up with me, and now is very involved in the family business. Mark is the eighth generation of the Judice family to be connected with the sugarcane industry, and I can’t thank him enough for helping me make contacts within the industry.
“My goal is to publish a book chronicling 'The Sugar Mill Sessions,' and after that I will just continue my obsession with photography. I will never stop making images. One thing that draws me to the medium is its populist nature, and I like that as a society, we are very literate when it comes to reading a photograph.”