PORTLAND — As part of the innovative Circa Series featuring the work of Maine’s best contemporary artists, the Portland Museum of Art will present "Blueberry Rakers: Photographs by David Brooks Stess" which will be on view April 6 through May 19.
Stess has spent more than two decades photographing the annual blueberry harvest in northern Maine, raking alongside Native American Mainers and migrant field hands. His striking images capture the physical aspects of their labor, as well as their social life in workers’ camps at the edge of the fields. The exhibit features 50 gelatin silver prints — among them striking portraits, candid documentary scenes, and looming landscape views.
By focusing his camera on the hard realities of manual labor and the relationships among the workers, Stess brings an unsentimental view to his subject. An icon of rural life in Maine and one of the culinary wonders of this state, the blueberry has inspired numerous treasured recipes and during the exhibition, some of Maine’s best food providers, including Fore Street Restaurant and Aurora Provisions, will share their favorite blueberry recipes with museum visitors.
In recent decades blueberry raking has also become a large, agri-business with an economic bottom line and more mechanized ways of harvesting that endanger the traditional method of hand-raking which is quickly and quietly disappearing. The exhibit examines both sides of this dilemma in an attempt to give a face and a context to the wild berry that has come to define the state of Maine. In his essay for the Circa brochure, noted author Richard Russo touches on this subject as he delves into the heart of Stess’s photographs.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Florida, Stess attended the University of Miami where he studied history, film and photography. From states with large migrant agricultural communities, Stess eventually carried their concerns with him first to New York City and eventually to New England, where he supports his photography career with seasonal work raking blueberries, picking apples, and selling Christmas trees. Stess’s documentary work is informed by this first-hand experience, as well as a deep admiration for the photographs of Josef Koudelka, who lived with Europe’s nomadic gypsies, and Danny Lyon, who rode his motorcycle alongside America’s biker gangs.
The museum at Seven Congress Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students with ID, $6 for youth ages 13 to 17, and children 12 and under are free. Special exhibition fees may apply. Admission is free from 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays. For more information, call 207-775-6148 or visit portlandmuseum.org.