Story by Emily Graham/ Contributing writer
Bill Steber went to the Mississippi Delta and fell in love. . . with the place, with the music, and especially the musicians.
“My first trip through the Delta as an adult was on an assignment for the Tennessean, it was in August of 1992 when I was a full-time staff photographer,” Steber said. “That first day I stopped at the home of a guy named Son Thomas, who was a folk artist and a musician, and that’s all it took. Just driving through the landscape, the music that I had already loved my whole life just suddenly had a context, it made sense, in this place.”
When he speaks of the Delta, it becomes apparent this is a place he reveres. Since that first trip to the Delta, Steber has returned to Mississippi dozens of times to ensure the slice of Americana that is Mississippi Blues culture doesn’t fade with time. He’s taken thousands of photographs, showcasing the region’s blues musicians, juke joints, churches, river baptisms, hoodoo practitioners, traditional farming methods, and folk traditions that gave birth to or influenced the blues.
Now his work has been honored with a major prize. In late March, he was named the Tennessee winner of the South Arts State Fellowship, a state-specific prize given annually to the artists whose work reflects the best of the visual arts in the South. Each of the nine State Fellowship winners will be awarded a $5,000 South Arts State Fellowship at an awards ceremony in Columbus, Georgia, in May. In addition, an overall winner will be named, with a $25,000 prize awarded.
Steber is a native of Centerville, a small town about 70 miles west of Nashville, and currently resides in Murfreesboro. He studied photography at Middle Tennessee State University, where he is now featured on the College of Media and Entertainment’s Wall of Fame. He began his photojournalism career at the Tennessean in 1989, where he stayed until 2004.
Steber said that after his second trip to the Delta in May of 1993, Son Thomas died due to many underlying health problems. He remembers that Thomas’ death gave him a sense of urgency to find what else was out there, in terms of the blues culture.
“I was just a man on a mission at that point,” he said. “I would go down there half a dozen to eight times a year, in the subsequent years, and really try to maximize the time to be down there at significant events and festivals. Of course, just like anything else, the more you know the more you realize you don’t know, and so it just built from there into a lifetime singular obsession, to try to meet as many musicians as I possibly could, to understand the context of where the music comes from through church and agriculture and things like that. It was nothing I could really even explain, it was just a deeply moving emotional urge that made me go, and still sends me there.”
Other than Mississippi blues culture, Steber has photographed many high-profile events during his time at the Tennessean. He recalled his four trips to New York for Fashion Week, as well as his time covering the Titans in the Superbowl. He also did long-term documentaries for the paper on features, fashion and food photography.
Steber explained “That’s really the reason I decided to start out in photojournalism, because it kind of forces you to be able to do anything, you know, you have to be a good studio photographer, a good documentary photographer, sports, news, you have to really be able to react, and you have to really be able to slowly create at the same time. With the deadlines and the nature of the work, it forces you to engage with the world through your subconscious in a way that you have to act in real time, and there’s no time to overthink anything.”
In the last decade, Steber has shifted away from digital photography to “wet plate photography” to capture his images of the South. Wet plate photography requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about 15 minutes, necessitating a portable darkroom for use in the field. The processwas invented in 1851, and Steber uses this technology to visually capture the feel of historical blues culture.
“When I started doing the wet plate, around 2005, then I started going and especially doing a lot of landscapes and portraiture, and supplementing a lot of what I had already done in a new way, in a way that speaks to the past, but depicts the present, and it links the present day world of Mississippi with its past through this antiquated technology,” he said.
Along with his photography, Steber is also the founder of multiple bands, including the Jake Leg Stompers and The HooDoo Men, as well as co-founder of The Jericho Road Show. He plays a range of instruments, from the saw and harmonica to the banjo-ukulele and the guitar.
“Even the photography, everything I do is about music, even though photography is a two-dimensional visual medium, most of the things I’m interested in are related to music. I experience the world through music, everything to me has a soundtrack. When I make a photograph of a musician or anything depicting music, I try the best I can to make it visually look like the music sounds. I also tried to learn it, play it, and understand the context of the music through the people who created it. You really begin to understand and absorb why the music sounds like it does and where it comes from. It made sense at some point for me to go out and start playing the music myself. I don’t see myself as ‘of the culture.’ I’m someone who can share what I have been privileged to experience through the people who did create the culture, and use it as a means to tell their story.”
Steber said he is happy to be the Tennessee recipient for the South Arts Fellowship, but he admitted that the prize wasn’t on his radar.
“I found out about the deadline about two weeks before the deadline, and I threw something together, it sounds kind of slapdash, but it goes back to what I was saying earlier, which is that I feel liberated by not having the time to overthink things. So, being an old newspaper person I can really sharply focus in a really short amount of time. I had to pull from a lot of the various projects and things I do something that would be a coherent statement from just 2017 to 2019. I just pulled together the best examples I could to describe my vision, and just sat down and wrote from my heart. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, so when I did find out, I was a little shocked. You’re up against a lot of incredible people, and when I saw the other winners I was deeply humbled.”
Steber’s love and dedication to the South and to reviving Mississippi blues culture is apparent as the stories spill out. If he wins the top prize in May, Steber would be appreciative, but he said the friends he’s made over the years in his trips to Mississippi have been rewarding, too.
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