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David Stess: Documentary Photojournalist (In a Hurry)

by John Tarleton
December 1998

NEW YORK CITY—David Stess talks, drives, snaps photos and rakes blueberries at 100 m.p.h. And he would do them all at the same time if it were possible.

Since abandoning a promising career in cinematography, the 37-year old Stess has spent the past 10 years working on his craft of black and white photography. Based out of New York City, he has focused much of his work on rural Maine, where the gritty, spartan imagery of his black and white photography seems especially appropriate.

In the past year, his photos have begun to receive acclaim especially those from the grueling wild bluebery harvest which Stess avidly joins in on each August as both participant and photographer. On a good day he will snap hundreds of pictures and rake 3,000 lbs. of blueberries while talking non-stop in his nasal New York City accent.

"That's what people always come up and tell me," he laughs. "That they can't believe I get so much done even though I'm talking all the time."

Stess, who enjoys lightly-sautéed squid and slender-hipped Asian women, will have a solo exhibit at Maine Coast Artists in Rockport, Maine in fall 1999 and another one at University of Maine-Machias in the summer of 2000. And, he looks forward to publishing a full-length photodocumentary on the Blueberry Harvest.

I caught up with this voluble, hypercarbonated photographer in his tiny one bedroom apartment/darkroom in the heart of Greenwich Village on an unusually warm December evening, long after the last blueberry had fallen into his rake. And he was still thinking about Maine.

Journey to a Mystical Land

JT: Tell me more about your interest in Maine. Alot of your work has come from there. What is it about Maine that draws you back over and over again?

DS: It always piqued my interest even though my early years were in New Jersey and I grew up mostly in Florida. When I moved to New York, a friend of mine, who was also getting into photography, he also had a thing about Maine. And so we took a week-long roadtrip to this magical, mystical kind of place that geographically is not that far away. But in its own way, it is far away. It's a very different place—its culture, the physicality of the place. It's further away than it really seems it should be. So off we went on our little road trip.

JT: What was the most striking thing that you found about Maine once you got there?

DS: The coastline is really spectacular. But without a doubt, it was the blueberry camp, Wyman's big camp in Deblois. It was unlike anything I had ever run across.

JT: Because of....

DS: Just because of what they were doing there. Even though I've driven by tons of orange fields and vegetable fields, I'd never come across a migrant community like that in Florida. And there it was. It was the local Maine people. And it was Native Americans and some funky oddballs from all over the place.

JT: Talk a little bit more why blueberry harvest is so important to your work. Because, people are havesting crops all over the United States. Why is this one harvest so compelling?

DS: Even as a little kid, I used to go off in the woods and pick berries all day. Tramp around in the woods and pick raspberries and blackberries and wild strawberries. So I've always loved to pick berries. And I like to eat berries. And I happen to like blueberries. They're tasty. I can eat them in addition to picking them. I don't know how much I would want to do something if I didn't like to eat it. And just the physicality of the Blueberry Barrens is really, really interesting and unique. They have almost a desert or Arctic kind of feel to them.

Working on His Craft

JT: You get really involved in the work. Talk about your philosophy of being involved in your subject.

DS: As I developed as a photographer and realized I wanted to do long-term documentary work and photograph people, I realized that in the great works that have been done in photography, a thread ran through that it was people who were personally involved with what they were doing whose work was most compelling. And also for my own personal way of looking at the world, I'd rather be a participant instead of just an observer. At least for me, it's alot more emotionally rewarding to become apart of what you're doing.

And you go hard out there. That's the reputation.

DS: (laughter)

JT: Where does the fire come from?

DS: I've always been someone who's very confident in my physicality and my athletic ability. I'm a very competitive person, whether it's a game of gin or sports or whatever. And there's that element out there, where it is competitive. And obviously the better you are at it, the more you are going to make at it. For me, given how little money I make in New York, the money I make in blueberries allows me to travel and photograph. I''ve actually made more money blueberry raking than I have as an entry level film grunt in New York working much longer hours. And the fact that I've very good at it has the side benefit of giving me more respect. I'm not just viewed as some guy from the outside taking photographs. People see me rake, and that gives me a certain status which is nice.

"I've found Zen on the Barrens."

JT: 3,000 lbs. a day. That's....

DS: Well I've had some really good days.

JT: It's hard for alot of people to imagine doing this kind of work. What keeps you going when it's the hottest point of the day, you're sore and tired and most people are leaving.

DS: I don't know. It's the Zen thing. I really get focused into it.

JT: You've found Zen on the Barrens?

DS: I have found Zen on the Barrens. I kind of Zen out. And after working half the year in New York in the film business which is very stressful, to be out in nature and to push yourself physically really does me a world of good, psychologically and emotionally. And I just like doing it. I love the sound of a blueberry rake going through blueberry bushes. I love that "swish" sound when you are sweeping., when you're raking as hard as you can.There's days when I'll really, really push it and basically stagger out of the field.

JT: It's the kind of exhaustion that comes from a good hard days work.

DS: And you sleep the sleep of the Just when you're done raking. You don't need that glass of wine at the end of the day to unwind. Your body really needs days when you can push yourself like that and get that kind of deep, deep sleep.

JT: And the pictures you're taking up there are starting to receive attention. Museums are putting them on display.

DS: Knock on wood (he taps his kitchen counter). Hmmm, looks like particle board....It's nice. What's really nice too is that some of the people I rake with have had a chance to see some work. And over the next couple of years I'm going to have some exhibits up there where guys and gals I rake with will be able to come and see what I've been doing and get a feel for what this project is about and see the respect and dignity I show the people I rake with blueberries with.

JT: Any prediction when the photodocumentary will be revealed to the world?

DS: Maybe in the next year or two. I'd like to have a nice rep coming out of Maine before I try to deal with the wider art world. The New York art scene is a whole different ball of wax.

Right in the Heart of the City

JT: What brings you back to New York City over and over again?

DS: It's a good balance. I need my time out on the fields and out in nature hiking and kayaking and fishing and I hunt birds in the fall. I like being in nature very, very much. But, I also like being in New York City. And I like being right in the heart of the City. There's an energy here. There's no place I've ever been like it; not Paris or London. Culturally, it's the capitol of this continent. I like to photograph on the street. I like walking the streets. I like feeling that. So, that's why I'm back here. And I'm lucky I live in Greenwich Village, which is like a little village. I'm hoping in the next year or two to get a place in Maine and maybe get some of my own blueberry land to become a certified organic grower. Then I'll be able to have the best of both worlds.

JT: Another passion of yours: Asian women....

DS: (laughter)

JT: What's special about them?

DS: I guess I've always been attracted to women from other cultures. The big love of my life was a French girl. It's the somewhat different take on the world. A different way of seeing the world. And I just found myself attracted to that dark, exotic look. It's not that I haven't been attracted to blondes. But I like an exotic, different culture.

Pursuing a Dream

JT: You could have had an easier, more conventional life. In these past 10 years you've pursued your dreams in photography. Worth all the trouble and sacrifice? And if so, why?

DS: If you have a dream and you're young, that's the time you have to pursue it. Whether you're successful or not, there's alot of variables. Alot of it is beyond your control. But you have to give it your best shot. And that's what I've done. Who knows where I'm going to be in 10 years. But at least I know I'm getting some success now. Whether that goes forward, I don't know. But I know it's been worth it for me. And I know that I'll be able to say to myself down the line, "that sacrifice was worth it". And everybody has questions to ask themselves about that: "Do I want to pursue my dream? Or do I want to have a more conventional life?" You make your decisions and you have to live with them. I feel for me it's been good. I've grown alot. So where it goes from now, I don't know. But, I have further hopes and dreams on different projects that I'd like to do.

JT: When you wake up in the morning, you're excited?

DS: Yeah I am. What's nice is I've had some really wonderful compliments from people. People who have come up to me six months, a year, two years later and say that they still think about my work and they are still affected by my images. And as an artist you cannot ask for anything more than that. To know that I've affected people that way is really the most rewarding thing. And it makes you just want to work harder and keep up that high level and to push yourself as far as you can.


John Tarleton is an independent Web Journalist. He has worked 8 blueberry harvests.

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