The Raker’s Progress: Photographs by David Brooks Stess

The lives of Mainers have inspired some of the finest documentary photographers America has produced. A short list would include Berenice Abbott, Kosti Ruohomaa, Madeleine de Sinéty and Susan Meiselas. The work of these and other photographers has been marked by an earned authenticity: they lived among their subjects.

David Brooks Stess brings a similar richness of shared existence to the 50 gelatin silver print photographs in this show. The New Jersey-born, Florida-raised photographer spent more than 20 years among the blueberry pickers in northern Maine, recording their itinerant lives (the prints in the show, courtesy VoxPhotographs, date from 1989 to 2011). Without an ounce of sentiment, but with bona fide empathy, Stess presents the Native American and migrant field hands as they are, presented in the glowing black-and-white tones of his chosen medium.     

Stess captures the dynamics of the blueberry pickers in a number of different ways. There’s the action shot: Raking Close Up (John Boy), ca. 1999, shows the blurred motion of a bent-over berry picker as he sweeps his rake through the low-lying bushes. It almost seems like he’s flinging himself out of the picture frame, which he is, moving through his motions with speed and determination.

In Quinn, also from around 1999, a farm hand is viewed from the back, naked to the waist, the blueberry rake, clipped to his belt, pulling his pants downward. The man draws a cloth over his sweaty head. If there is humor here, it is double-edged.

These photographs are also about community: a potluck supper, an off-hours gathering, a kid doing homework on an overturned plastic berry tub. Individual portraits are among the most haunting. Norman, ca. 2002, features a balding and bearded man with white gloves weighing a bucket of berries on a scale attached to a makeshift teepee-shaped frame made of branches. His gaze is focused on the scale while ours takes in the twist of his body.

Caledonia, ca. 2000, is a study of a young girl in the middle of a field, a blueberry rake held at her hip. With its row of long gleaning “teeth,” the rake is a thing of beauty, recalling an out-sized hairpin, although it is the burden of this skinny child with her lovely Scottish-Appalachian name.  

Stess is not the first to document the field workers of northern and eastern Maine. One thinks of the aforementioned Abbott who photographed farmers in Aroostook and, more recently, Amy Toensing, whose first major body of work featured portraits of broccoli pickers in the County made while she was enrolled at the Salt Institute for Documentary Field Studies in Portland. In all three cases, the portrayals display a sensitivity but also a directness; we see the harvesters in their day-to-day reality, not romanticized yet somehow heroic in their labors.

The photographer Mary Ellen Mark once praised Madeleine de Sinéty for being able to see “those precious moments of life we often ignore.” Stess deserves similar commending for the light he brings to a seasonal community living on the outer edge of inland Maine. His goal for these photographs is an admirable one: “to honor the dignity of how [the rakers] have chosen to live their lives.”

Organized by Susan Danly, former senior curator, “Blueberry Rakers: Photographs by David Brooks Stess” is part of the Portland Museum of Art’s “Circa” series showcasing the work of contemporary Maine artists. It runs through May 19. For more information, visit

Carl Little’s most recent book is Nature & Culture: The Art of Joel Babb (University Press of New England).