April 3, 2013

Soup to Nuts: Black-and-white and blueberries

When it comes to Maine's wild blueberries, David Stess is equally adept at picking or shooting them.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

If you want to get an earful, just ask David Stess how he feels about cultivated blueberries.

click image to enlarge

“Winnowing,” circa 1991, gelatin silver print.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

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"Caledonia," circa 2000, gelatin silver print.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

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They're "big and tasteless," he rants. "All water." "A joke."

"I wouldn't want to make pies from those," Stess said. "I wouldn't want to make jam. I wouldn't want to do anything with them."

It's April, not August, so why are we talking about wild blueberries?

Stess, a 51-year-old photographer from New York City, has an exhibition opening Saturday at the Portland Museum of Art featuring his photographs of blueberry rakers on Maine's wild blueberry barrens. He is intimately familiar with the differences between wild and cultivated blueberries (although not everyone would agree with his complete disdain of cultivated berries) because he has hand-raked wild berries himself every year for the past 25 years.

Stess passed through Portland last week on his way Down East to pick up 50 pounds of wild blueberries so he could, among other things, bake 10 blueberry pies over Easter weekend. He was looking to get his "pie technique" back before he has to bake one in front of the cameras to promote his exhibit.

"It's like spring training for pies," he quipped.

Stess has always loved berries. When he was a child in New Jersey, he picked blackberries, raspberries and strawberries in the woods near his home. When his family moved to Florida, he frequented the pick-your-own strawberry farms out on the edge of the Everglades.

Stess learned to cook at age 7 or 8 by helping his parents throw dinner parties for their friends. When he was 12 or 13, a cousin gave him a copy of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and now he makes a mean coq au vin.

"I'm a very good amateur cook," he said. "I'm pretty confident. I can do pretty much anything in the kitchen."

Stess' attention turned back to berries in his 20s, when he first started photographing Maine blueberry rakers, and now some of his specialties are the wild blueberry pies and low-sugar jams he makes with the Maine blueberries he harvests every summer.

"They go right from the field to the jam jar in a matter of hours," he said.

LOCAL CHEFS ON BOARD

The Portland Museum of Art decided to enhance Stess' exhibit, "Blueberry Rakers: Photographs by David Brooks Stess," by asking local chefs to share some of their favorite blueberry recipes, which will be sold in packets with the exhibit's brochure/poster for $4.50 in the museum store. Each card includes the recipe on one side and one of Stess' images on the other.

In addition to the recipes re-printed here from Sam Hayward (Fore Street), Steve Corry (Five Fifty-Five) and Stacy Begin (Two Fat Cats Bakery), Marika Kuzma will share Aurora Provisions' recipe for blueberry barbecue sauce and Helen's Restaurant in Machias offered its blueberry muffin recipe.

All those images of wild blueberries will probably make visitors hungry, so the museum's cafe will be serving blueberry pie, blueberry brownies and blueberry-lemon tea bread for the duration of the exhibit.

Stess fell in love with documentary photography at the University of Miami, where he developed an appreciation for the work of Joseph Koudelka, who lived with nomadic gypsies in Europe, and Eugene Smith, who documented the ravages of Minamata disease in Japan -- "these incredible guys who were weaving some of this world that they were photographing into their own life."

"I really wanted to find a project that I could weave into my life and shoot it from the inside," Stess said.

In the summer of 1988, on a road trip to Maine, Stess and a friend stumbled across a crew of migrant workers raking blueberry fields near Milbridge, and he found his project.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

“Off Hours,” gelatin silver print, circa 1994.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

click image to enlarge

"Norman," circa 2002, gelatin silver print.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

click image to enlarge

“Raking Close Up, (John Boy),” circa 1999, gelatin silver print.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

click image to enlarge

David Stess, whose show of photographs of blueberry rakers on Maine barrens opens Saturday at the Portland Museum of Art.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

  


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