Susan Danly has been thinking about David Stess for many years.

When she worked as a curator at the Portland Museum of Art, Danly kept a file on the photographer, clipping stories that were written about his work in the blueberry barrens of Downeast Maine that would serve her well when she found the time to do a show.

She finally found the time, but barely.

Danly, who retired in December, curated “Blueberry Rakers: Photographs by David Brooks Stess,” opening Saturday and on view through May 19 at the Portland Museum of Art.

The exhibition represents the final act of Danly’s curatorial career at the museum, and she could not be happier with the subject.

Among the things she most enjoyed about her job was the opportunity to champion the work of artists she admired. Stess fits firmly into that category, which is why she followed him and his work for so long.

“David’s work brings in social issues, though it is not social documentary work. His work is not just about the blueberry, but the people who rake them. He is as much a portraitist as a landscape or documentary photographer,” said Danly.

Stess, who lives in New York, has been raking blueberries in Maine since 1989 and shooting black-and-white photographs about the process and the people who do the work just as long. He’s gotten to know the workers well, because he has worked alongside them nearly every August for more than 20 years.

His images have been widely exhibited in Maine, and Stess has been part of past biennials at the Portland Museum of Art. But this exhibition marks the first time he has had a solo show at the PMA. It’s part of the museum’s “Circa” series, which features the work of Maine’s contemporary artists.

Stess’ blueberry project started with a road trip to Milbridge. He and a buddy were chatting with a woman in town, who told them about the blueberry harvest and suggested they drive up the road to check it out.

“So off we went to the blueberry barrens,” said Stess. “If you have never driven out there, the first time you go, you are instantly disoriented. It’s miles and miles of gravel roads, and miles and miles of blueberry fields. It’s like going to an arctic landscape. There is no point of reference.

“So we’re driving and driving, and we see a bunch of rusted-out vehicles and farther up, a bunch of cats who look like Confederate Army refugees. They were the blueberry crew, and most had stopped raking. They were waiting for their paychecks.”

Stess and his buddy hung out for a bit, and then one of the crew gave Stess a rake and challenged him to try his hand.

He liked the physical aspect of the work, as well as the result — he loves blueberries. But he especially liked the people. In that moment, he vowed to come back the following August and begin his photography project.

The PMA exhibition chronicles changes in the industry over time. When Stess began the project, all the raking was done by hand by local crews. In time, migrant workers took over most of the labor. Now it’s largely done by machines.

“I think what this exhibition is about is a way of life, and how things have changed over a relatively short amount of time,” Stess said. “Most people in Maine still have somebody that they know — a family member or a friend — who raked blueberries at one point. It was something that was important to the fabric of communities for a long time. It’s obviously passing from the scene, or has passed from the scene.”

Stess feels honored that his show was Danly’s farewell at the PMA.

“She’s great. She’s a real pro,” he said. “I’m really honored, because I have such respect for her. She has really believed in the show, and I am grateful she has chosen to go out with my show. That is something that will be important to me for the rest of my life.”

Danly said her work on the Stess exhibition embodies everything she loves about being a curator. She came to Maine for the first time in the late 1960s to work on Monhegan island, and was struck by the mingling of artists and laborers.

Danly was a history major, but her Monhegan summer led to her interest in art. She ended up getting an art history degree, and eventually a series of job in the arts. She arrived at the PMA a little more than a decade ago, and called it a dream job.

Danly, who is in the process of moving from Gorham to Portland with her husband, plans to continue working as a freelance curator, and is on board for the summer 2014 show at the Monhegan Museum.

“Working at the Portland museum was the icing on the curatorial cake,” she said. “It offered such a wonderful opportunity to meet artists. I loved making studio visits, and very much enjoyed my time at the museum.

“I’m looking forward to enjoying the shows the museum puts on just as a regular visitor does.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes