INTRODUCTION BILL STEBER
Bill Steber was the first in a long lineup of photographers to present his work at a technical symposium held in 1998 at Vanderbilt University. His photo-documentary of Blues musicians was to introduce guests to the social climate of "Music City."
Though the excitement of Presidential motorcades greeted most of us to Nashville and nearby blasting sent shockwaves through the basement of the old building where we gathered for the opening meeting, we were quickly transported by the slide presentation to the cool gray Mississippi Delta, which Steber's pictures had frozen in time.
It became apparent that in the 90 minutes or so allotted for the presentation, there was no way Steber was going to get in all of his slides, recordings and stories from years of amazing experiences he had found in the American heartland. In a race against the clock, he tried to make us all feel like we had been to the Delta with him on every trip, periodically apologizing for a poorly exposed slide copy of a photograph he had just taken. It seemed as if Steber had just gotten back to print pictures all night, and he would head back down Highway 61 in the morning.
Dozens of photographers had gathered to talk technique for the four days of the symposium, yet the first question for the artist was, "How did you meet so many interesting people?" It is one of the biggest obstacles for a documentary photographer -- How does one approach members of an interesting community and gain their trust to take candid photographs of their activities. For Bill Steber, being passionate about the Blues probably helped.
Immediately following the presentation, Steber dashed into the Tower Records across the street from the university to admire the large selection of Blues CDs. He already owned most of the titles, but offered advice about the best artists. Though he studied English and Photography at Middle Tennessee State University and began working as a newspaper photographer in 1989, Steber played Blues in a band around Nashville.
While covering an assignment on the Natchez Trace for The Tennessean, Steber returned to his home state by way of Highway 61, the fabled route of the Blues. On a whim, he stopped to photograph at the home of legend Son Thomas. The experience was unforgettable. Steber would return often and make thousands of photographs in the region.
When he first became committed to documenting the Blues culture, Steber figured to make the most of several visits to the Delta. He was repeatedly drawn back to the desolate flat land, where he met locals who gladly opened doors into their world. In addition to visual documents, Steber interviewed subjects and made recordings of Blues artists that had never been recorded.
Alarmed that opportunities and way-of-life were being destroyed by national commercial trends, Steber became positively obsessed with his work in the Delta. He received a 1998 Alicia Patterson Foundation grant allowing him to take a year-long sabbatical from his job to further pursue his work documenting the vanishing culture. The artist has uncovered the roots of African-American culture that gave rise to the Blues as a distinctively American music, and he has been concerned with modern influences, such as the wealthy casinos along the Mississippi River that have bankrupted many of the tiny Juke Joints. From folk beliefs traced back to Africa, to the rural lifestyle of post-Civil War Mississippi, Steber has recorded scenes that have rarely been viewed by outsiders and may never be witnessed again in the future.
INTERVIEW BILL STEBER
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