Photographing Maine's Blueberry Barrens
The rakers drive a mile or so down the road to the Simon Camp, a cluster of 20-odd wooden migrant cabins on the edge of the barrens, an abandoned Cold War-era radar installation marking the near horizon. Most raker families live in these primitive cabins. A few come with travel trailers. Stess lives out of the back of his station wagon and sleeps in a small tent next to the crew’s dwindling pile of firewood.
He’s looking forward to a hot shower, but as he fishes his toiletries and clean clothes out of his car, Micmac children gather round, eager to see his photographs. He has exhibited at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, at the University of Maine campuses in Machias and Presque Isle, and at The Putney School in Vermont, but his primary audience is here on the barrens. Amidst the car’s clutter, Stess retrieves boxes of shots from previous seasons and hands them out free of charge to the rakers.
They’re all black-and-white, documentary-style photos shot on film and printed by hand. No quick-and-easy color digital images for Stess. He’s old-school. His work harks back to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, when the government commissioned photographers to chronicle the lives of the rural poor.
The blueberry harvest Stess has been photographing since the 1980s is itself rapidly changing. In the field next to the one where he and the crew have been raking by hand, mechanical harvesters rumble across the barrens, raking in tons of blueberries and signaling the passing of a traditional way of life in Down East Maine.
Stess figures he needs at least one more year on the raking crew to complete his project. Then maybe he’ll start looking for a book publisher. At the moment, however, he’s still focused on raking enough blueberries to finance his photography. Fresh from the shower and flexing his sore right knee, Stess vows, “By the end of the season, I’ll be a lean, mean raking machine.”