A few years ago, I wrote a short profile of photographer David Brooks Stess for the pages of the July/August 2009 Yankee. Many of the black and white photographs featured in that article are now part of the Blueberry Rakers: Photography by David Brooks Stess exhibition at Portland Museum of Art (through May 19). Though Stess has been raking blueberries in downeast Maine and photographing his coworkers for 25 years, the Portland exhibition has something of an air of public discovery and coming out.
The Stess show is one of the Portland museum’s Circa series, a program of exhibitions by living artists sponsored by hedge fund millionaire S. Donald Sussman. Sussman and his wife, First District U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree were among the crowd of viewers who attended the April 5 opening of Blueberry Rakers on First Friday, an evening the Portland Museum of Art is always jammed with visitors and the streets of downtown Portland are crawling with gallery-goers, vendors, and street performers.
I don’t ordinarily comment of the social aspects of an exhibition, but the Stess opening had the feeling of a real event. Stess was up from New York City where he lives when not working in Maine. His parents were there from California, as was his brother. There were fellow artists and photographers, students, teachers, old friends, rakers and blueberry growers down from Washington County, critics, the media and museum staff, all present to enjoy and applaud the life’s work of David Brooks Stess.
Following the opening there was a reception at the Portland loft of Heather Frederick, whose Vox Photographs represents Stess. Among the guests, who were served blueberry pie the photographer had made for the occasion, was Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo (Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, Elsewhere) who wrote a brief appreciation of Stess’s photographs for the exhibition’s brochure/poster.
Where PMA press materials compare Stess’s photographs of blueberry rakers to Josef Koudelka’s photographs of gypsies and Danny Lyons’ photographs of motorcycle gangs, Richard Russo takes a more romantic view of the black and white gelatin silver prints upon which Stess presents a timeless view of hand harvesting fast being replaced by mechanical harvesters.
“For me,” writes Russo, ”looking at a David Stess photograph is like reading a Thomas Hardy novel, where the borders between character and object and landscape blur, where tools become inseparable from the men and women who wield them, the tool smoothed by the hand that holds it, the hand in turn calloused by the tool, as if each were trying to become the other, and both molded, you could almost say ‘determined,’ by a landscape that’s both beautiful and restless.”
Back in 2009 I had the opportunity to travel with David Stess to the migrant labor camp where he pitches his tent with the other rakers and earns his days’ pay with back-breaking labor. Unlike documentary photographers who drop in briefly to exploit an interesting, colorful or compelling situation, Stess is a bona fide raker, known to his fellow harvesters as “Super Dave” for his prowess swinging a metal-tined blueberry rake through the low bushes of wild berries. Because he has privileged and intimate entre to the rakers, who range from locals scraping out a living in the make-do economy of rural Maine to Micmac crews from across the border in Canada and migrant laborers up from Mexico, Stess makes a practice of giving photographs to the people he photographs. To date, he has given away more than 10,000 photographs.
In the Stess spirit of sharing the experience and the images, I gave the museum four blurry snapshots I took of David on the blueberry barrens back in 2009. I’m long accustomed to seeing my words in print, but I was unprepared for the kick I got out of seeing my amateur photos on television and in the newspaper. I have reproduced a couple here in order to show David at work.
David Brooks Stess captures the elemental lives of laborers on the barrens of Maine with an authenticity born of experience. It is rare and unusual for a documentary photographer to be one with his subject matter, but we are all visually richer for the long, hard work David has done to capture the personal, social and environmental realities of Maine’s wild blueberry harvest.
[Portland Museum of Art, Seven Congress Square, Portland ME, 207-775-6148.]