Down East 2013 ©
David Brooks Stess has spent more than two decades photographing the annual blueberry harvest in Washington County, raking alongside Passamaquoddy and Micmac Indians from Maine and New Brunswick and migrant field hands from South and Central America. Fifty of his gelatin silver prints — striking portraits, desolate landscapes, and the images of sweaty, backbreaking labor — are on exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art until mid-May. In this excerpt from the exhibition catalog, author Richard Russo reflects on the power of Stess’s photographs.
For me, 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 relentless. The physical world is meant to seduce us. We aren’t supposed to turn away. David Stess knows this first hand. He still vividly remembers that first day, over twenty years ago, when he drove out onto Maine’s blueberry barrens, how he and a friend, not knowing what to expect, rattled along for miles over rutted dirt roads, until finally, off in the foggy distance there appeared a group of figures “who looked like Confederate refugees.” You can’t help wondering if he sensed, even then, that he’d spend the next twenty years coaxing these shapes out of the mist, his unerring lens giving them a solidity, a weight you could almost guess. If we feel like we know David’s men and women, it’s because he does. He worked side by side with them for weeks (in some instances, years) before he snapped that first photograph, and their trust in him is evident in every shot.”
Excerpted from Richard Russo’s essay in the Circa Series brochure for the exhibition Blueberry Rakers: Photographs by David Brooks Stess, at the Portland Museum of Art through May 19, 2013. 7 Congress Square, Portland. 207-775-6148. portlandmuseum.org