Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Blues in his eyes

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Featured Photo by Bill Steber

Story by Aiden O’Neill

How a southern photojournalist’s love for music led him to tell the story of a rapidly vanishing culture.

A pivoting path

On a scorching summer day in 1992, Bill Steber was driving north on U.S. 61 through the Mississippi Delta. He was a photographer for The Tennessean, a job he took soon after graduating from Middle Tennessee State University. That day 31 years ago, Steber and a co-worker were returning to Nashville after finishing up an assignment about the completion of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The humid Mississippi air and the earthy scent reminded him of his hometown, a place called Centerville, Tennessee.


As the car sped past magnolias and fields Steber’s mind wandered back in time. In his youth he never missed “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” a weekly television show featuring underwater documentaries by Cousteau, a French naval officer and oceanographer. This show, which ran from 1966 to 1976, caught young Steber’s imagination. Scuba diving seemed like a fine career path back then, but given he lived in a landlocked state it was probably an unrealistic one.


Still, the photographer had drawn inspiration from Cousteau. Steber’s curiosity about lives outside of his own was something he was born with, but Cousteau’s wonder-driven commitment to documenting unknown territory inspired him even further. Cousteau was committed to immersing himself in the oceanic world.


Similarly, Steber wanted to immerse himself in his own passions: examining others’ perspectives of the world, capturing moments in time in an honest way and immersing himself in blues music. He had always listened to blues, but he wanted to understand the music on another level.


He’s brought back to the current moment watching the black asphalt of Highway 61 rush beneath his car. At that moment, Steber had an epiphany. Here he was driving through the heartland of the music that had captivated him throughout his life. The curiosity of what could be became too overwhelming to ignore. He looked over at his coworker, a Mississippi-based writer, in the passenger seat.


“Would you be willing to take a little detour?”


Little did Steber know, his coworker was friends with Malcolm White, an expert on blues musicians in Mississippi, who later became the longtime director of the Mississippi Arts Commission.


Steber turned the car around on Highway 61 and headed to Jackson to find White. They found him at Hal & Mal’s, a staple restaurant and brewery in the community. White handed the photographer a printed list of over a dozen musicians in the area along with their contact information. Although Steber wanted to meet each person, with limited time he knew he would have to narrow his choices.


“If we only have time to stop and visit one person, who should it be?” he asked.


White considered it for a moment, his eyes shifting across the page at the options. He simply said: “You need to go meet Son Thomas.”

The man behind the camera


Bill Steber stands in the Baldwin Gallery at Middle Tennessee State University, his alma mater, staring at his completed collection. He was surrounded in a cold, bright room with only the quiet footsteps of
students walking to class in earshot. Nostalgia begins to creep up on him as he looks at his life’s work in the school that brought him to photography many years ago.


When Steber was in high school he was different from his friends, purely in their strengths. Being a right-brain creative thinker amid left-brain analytical thinkers didn’t affect him until he neared graduation though. When the latter years of his high school career crept up, he began considering what path he was destined for. Since many of his friends were bound for careers in engineering, Steber thought electrical engineering would at least make him a good living. When he barely passed the math portion of his ACT, the differences between him and his buddies became clear.


His next step was to try to detach himself from his friends’ interests, which is difficult for a teenager. Music was the only interest he had ever truly cared about, but he didn’t play an instrument at the time. The only other option was working on the business or production side of the music industry, and MTSU had the perfect program for that path.


“I did that for a few years and I kind of enjoyed it. I learned a lot, but I saw the harsh reality of
what it’s like trying to make a living in the music industry. You have almost no control over your
destiny.”


As part of his studies, Steber had the opportunity to take a photography class. He considered that an easy choice. His father was an amateur photographer, and he took a photography class in high school, so he thought he had basic knowledge on the subject. Professor Jim Norton, his introductory photography professor, proved Steber wrong. Norton had a reputation for being the toughest teacher in the history of the program. Students would leave crying because the class was so challenging.


Professor Norton treated the curriculum as a high-level photography class with great
expectations of his students. Steber thrived off of the grueling, unforgiving environment. Professor
Norten’s class didn’t break him, but instead made him realize that photography was his path.


“Once I took that class I was like, okay, that’s it. I found my pond. This is what I want to do. I’ve
always been better in classes that are just a little above my capacity.”


The photography program had a few options of direction that Steber had considered. Documentary style photography was the direction that deeply moved him, but there wasn’t any way to make a comfortable living from documentary photography. Photojournalism seemed to be the perfect mix of showing others’ stories while also being able to survive financially.

As he excelled in the program, Steber became aware of the differences between photojournalism and fine art photography. There is the school of thought, he said, that photographers should not set up a situation to be shot because it doesn’t honor the truth. An opposing school of thought is that what a photographer observes is not nature itself, but nature exposed to a photographer’s method of questioning. Steber held onto the latter philosophy throughout his career.


Although he was a student of traditional photojournalism, MTSU’s program was much broader and had a stronger focus on art. Steber’s approach to projects reflected that artistic driven mindset, even early in his career. He was given real estate assignments when he was just starting out, like many photographers are. Rather than just rolling by the house and taking a quick snapshot of the exterior, Bill wanted to create a story. He’d pick a decade or specific style to challenge himself with each project he was handed. Studying the Master of Photography informed his style and drove him to unique concepts.


In 1989, Steber graduated from MTSU. That same year he began his career as a staff photojournalist for the Tennessean. Throughout his time at this well-respected paper, Steber was always trying to push the limits on what was standard or expected. In the dozens of pieces he accomplished, there was always something supremely evocative about each of his photos.

On May 3, 1991, Steber shot Nancy Lopez on her final putt at the Sara Lee Classic in Hermitage. In the photo she’s crouched down watching the golf ball roll across the green in a potentially game changing shot. The golfer’s face is scrunched up in anticipation. The audience is blurred in the background, but in this frozen moment in time the tension is palpable.

On March 2, 2000, Steber went to Christina Elementary School for Read Across America Day. The photo is of a first-grade boy eating green eggs in ham in the cafeteria to honor Dr. Seuss. Steber shot the image close-up, nearly fish eyed, with the green eggs pushed up to the front of the photo. The boy is wearing a bright red and navy-blue shirt, taking a bite of the eggs with wide eyes. The bright colors gave the photo a youth-like exuberance. There was playfulness in the angle of the shot and in the expression on the boy that captured a childlike perspective. A new personality was emitted in each story he portrayed through images for the Tennessean, regardless of the storyline.


“It always had to be honest. It had to be real, but it also had to be engaging. I always wanted my
pictures to be visually interesting, no matter what,” Steber said.


Perhaps no photograph from his Tennessean days is remembered more than his shot of Tennessee Titan Kevin Dyson running for the winning touchdown in a playoff game against the Buffalo Bills. Dyson is center shot running with the ball in his arm. A sheriff is blurred in the background with his arms up, cheering with pure ecstasy. He caught the emotion of the moment perfectly within seconds.


“The pressure of capturing a moment is fleeting, but I can see how for some it may be a terrifying thing. Whereas for me it’s so deeply empowering. Time slows down and everything begins to melt away. You see patterns emerging and you just kind of flow with the moment. There’s nothing more intoxicating or addictive than engaging with life as it unfolds and creating something real,” Steber said.


His hard work and dedication to his craft has earned him dozens of national and regional awards such as: Morrie Camhi Award in documentary photography, Ernst Haas Award and a second place in the illustration category Pictures of the Year Competition, and many more. Although the images that granted him these accolades are well shot, the true draw to his work is the personality it emits.


There’s a display of naturalism found in Steber’s work. The respect of consistently self-checking that he’s portraying these stories honestly shows the gratitude he feels towards his subjects. The connection to music implements creativity and unity from within and makes the audience feel as if they’re looking into their own memories. Creating something that tells a story and evokes emotion is what art is about.


“Your perspective is always going to be there, and to me you shouldn’t avoid it. You should put it
out there upfront. That way if someone’s judging or assessing your work, they can do it with that
in mind,” Steber said.

Dedicating his life to Delta


Steber had never heard of Son Thomas until the photographer was pointed to Leland,
Mississippi, where Thomas resided.


He stepped onto the creaky wooden porch of Son Thomas’ home, nervous and wide eyed, taking in the scene and committing it to memory. A rusty paint can propped open the chipped front door. The small home had no air conditioning.


Thomas’ son, Pat, came to the door offering a faint smile on his face and welcomed them in without question. The smell of tobacco and the musty air transported Steber in his mind back to his older relatives’ homes in the country and filled him with a sense of comfort. The heat swirled around him, but he barely noticed.

Steber found Thomas sitting in a chair, his guitar propped up next to him. To the musician’s left there was a piece of unique folk art, a life-sized casket with a fake woman resting inside. Being in the presence of Thomas put Steber in a trance-like state, the photographer remembered. Every movement Thomas made was slow, methodical and to Steber, absolutely mesmerizing. A cigarette hung from his lips, halfway smoked with ashes falling onto the floor.


As Steber and Thomas spoke about music and life, Steber began navigating the parameters of this visit. He had this feeling gnawing at his gut that this was important, this was real. He gathered up courage and asked if he could capture a few images. This is after buying one of Son’s records of course; Steber is a man with southern manners after all.


“It was such a visceral experience of tangible reality. I was hungry for that. And I thought, ‘I
want to be as close to this as I can possibly get,’” Steber said.


The photographs from his visit with Son Thomas felt inconsequential compared to the power of engaging with Thomas, Steber said. All he could think about was when he would be able to return. And a few months later he does. When he arrived at Son Thomas’ house, he didn’t find the same scene. Pat Thomas broke the news that his father was terminally ill. Steber said the memory of Thomas listening to him so intentionally left the photographer filled with a sadness that was hard to describe.


“The way that he talked, the way that he engaged, the way he just looked at you. I didn’t know that he was in the last few months of his life, but you could just see that he carried a weight with him, both good and bad. I mean, the gravity of a hard life, but also having a life that represented a past that doesn’t exist anymore,” Steber remembered.


His first meeting with Thomas replayed in his mind, filling him with regret and unanswered questions. Driving through the Delta, Steber took care to examine the area closely. He saw the decay of structures. He saw the faces of older musicians. One day they will be ghosts, he realized, and that’s when Steber pledged to tell their stories, preserving what otherwise would have been lost forever.


This was the beginning of over 200 pilgrimages taken by Steber to the Delta. That first trip, he was unsure of what he was walking into. Bill wasn’t the type to shy away from the unknown though, he was more akin to embracing it fully.

“When I made my first intentional trip into Mississippi to start photographing, once again getting out of my comfort zone, I’d only ever used 35 millimeter cameras. I decided I wanted to challenge myself. I’m in a new place. I don’t know the rules or the parameters. So, let’s also do it in a format that I’ve never used before,” Steber said, chuckling at his naivete.


During one of Steber’s visits, he walks into a juke joint called “Po’ Monkey”. He sees another photographer sitting in the back, taking his position as a silent spectator. They were both in different places in their projects and embraced different philosophies of photography. Throughout this, Steber’s modus operandi has never included being just a spectator with a camera.


“My idea was just the opposite of that. If you want to have people be natural, you become so
much a part of the scene that they forget about you.”


The banter starts naturally with the locals and Steber is met with an undying welcoming attitude. He orders a round of drinks as a gesture of kindness. They can feel his intentions through the energy he emits, gratefulness and complete astonishment. The music gains depth with each person he connects with, as if they are each their own note or instrument. The soundtrack amplifies in his mind, moves through his body, and transfers to his camera. The images sing this story of juke joints, community and an undying love for music.

“The pictures have to be honest, not only to the person or the place, but to the feel of the music
that it represents.”


With a combination of complete impracticality and commitment, Steber decided to extract the front of one of the abandoned homes. Thinking he’ll be able to hire help, he orders the tools required for this kind of extraction. A series of events, including locals being busy with harvest season, leads to him doing it alone in the middle of August.


This change of plans doesn’t deter him from moving forward, it just makes the process more grueling than anticipated. The heat index hits 108 degrees, and he’s removing the front of this house with a giant saw as if he’s a cartoon character. Steber begins drowning in sweat and hitting the brink of hallucinations. The heat exhaustion is nearing a dangerous level when he finally completes the extraction. The complete original home, minus some asbestos filled asphalt shingles, is ready to be put up in the exhibit.

Bring it Home Blues


Walking through the MTSU’s Baldwin gallery, Steber remembered the sounds that went along with each photograph. There are images of Delta natives dancing, eating, playing music and living their truth.

Artifacts from abandoned buildings and reconstructed metals juxtapose the perfect frames of the photographs. It’s been years since he captured these moments in time, but as he viewed his work he heard a song that’s never been released outside of his mind. Beer glasses clinking, conversations muffled by laughter, musicians strumming guitars and smooth voices singing of home are composed into a symphony that he never grows tired of hearing.

“Everything for me, no matter what I do, is about music. What my goal is for any project, but especially this one, is for the photographs to look like the music sounds. To me, the pictures have to be honest. Not only to the person and to the place, but to the feel of the music that it represents.”

In this retrospective, Steber decided to include photo books about the Delta created by other artists. As he flips through each of them, he feels supremely grateful that he had the privilege of documenting this community through his own lens.


“I’ve been waiting for 30 years for somebody to say, why do you get to speak about the
lives of others like this? The honest answer is I really don’t know, other than the fact that it’s just
the absolute generosity of folks I’ve met along the way and continuing to build those
relationships.”


The smell of tobacco, the southern heat, the community and the kindness reminds Bill of home. This collection of work had kept him engaged for decades, even with his wild spirit. But through every interaction, every sound, every scent…his experience crept into his mind. The story of Hickman County, his hometown, has been waiting to be told by him for some time now.

The love for Delta Blues was close enough to his heart that it lit a fire, but far enough away that
it didn’t burn him. A deep respect for the vulnerability of the people he’d photographed grew as he imagined displaying his most intimate memories in the same way.

“It’s so close that it’s hard to see it, it’s so much easier to see the patterns of how things fit
together from a slight remove. If it’s from a community in a culture that you love, but you’re not
intimate with you can see how to cover it. If it’s something like your own family or something you grew up with it, it’s so embedded.”

Steber thinks back to that life-changing day, driving down Highway 61. Decades have passed, projects have come together, awards have been won, shows have been played, memories have been made and all as a result of his love for music. Music started this journey, yes, but also every journey before. This love has been the constant, the motivator, the inspiration, the passion, and ultimately a defining force in Bill Steber’s life.


“I think you can’t choose what you love. Music is the core of everything. It’s always been the single most powerful and consistently positive thing in my entire life.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Destiny Mizell, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com. For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on X at @MTSUSidelines.

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