Bill Steber currently resides in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. His family has lived in Hickman County in Middle Tennessee, where Steber was born, since before it was a state. As he tells it, “Half the family were preachers and the other half were bootleggers and fortune tellers and sometimes you couldn’t tell the difference between the two.” Steber began his photography career as a staff photojournalist for The Tennessean in Nashville, where he worked from 1989 to 2004. He has chronicled blues culture in Mississippi for twenty-five years for his project Stones in My Pathway, documenting the state’s blues musicians, as well as the juke joints, churches, river baptisms, hoodoo practitioners, traditional farming methods, folkways, and other significant traditions that gave birth to or influenced the blues. A musician himself, Steber is the recipient of a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, as well as an Ernst Haas Award, the Morrie Camhi Award in documentary photography, and dozens of other national and regional photography awards.
Inspired by the so-called street documentary styles of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and fellow Southbound artist Eugene Richards, Steber focuses his lens on moments of spirited chaos to condense authentic experiences. In the extended limbs and engrossed faces of the dancers and musicians captured by Steber’s camera we can almost feel the beat of the drums or follow the notes of the guitar solo that took them to that sweet spot. As a follower of the blues, Steber naturally visited many a juke joint. Willie King at Betty’s Place (2000) captures legendary blues musician Willie King eliciting adventurous dance moves from patrons in a Prairie Point, Mississippi, juke joint known as Betty’s Place. World renowned, and mourned in the New York Times upon his death, King performed most frequently in his hometown, typically at Betty’s Place. In this image, Steber captures not just a musician practicing his craft, but also a moment of complete safety and freedom. Betty’s Place is a refuge where musicians play, hips swing, and revelers succumb to the magic of the blues performed beneath bare lightbulbs.
Many such blues refuges exist across the South. Steber visited another famed establishment to capture Dancers at Po’ Monkey’s (2000). One of the last rural juke joints in the Delta, located outside of Merigold, Mississippi, Po’ Monkey’s has drawn the eye of many photographers, including Birney Imes, Annie Leibovitz, and Will Jacks, whose project focused on Po’ Monkey’s is also featured in Southbound. Like those grooving to Willie King at Betty’s Place, Steber’s Dancers show us music without requiring us to hear even one note.
Steber’s portrait of Charles “Cadillac” Caldwell in an eponymous photograph (2000) captures the bluesman, who was signed to famed Fat Possum Records after a life spent working in a Grenada, Mississippi, industrial plant, in the chromed reflection of his namesake car. With Caldwell’s face obscured by his cowboy hat, the focus becomes the sleek Cadillac hood ornament and singer’s stance as he holds his guitar. Like Dancers at Po’ Monkey’s, this image seems to do the impossible, showing that which is normally only heard.
Steber’s images of spaces and faces beloved by those in the know, and sometimes by the world, capture the grit and ecstasy of Mississippi blues culture. His photographs grant access to a world that feels familiar and foreign at the same time, bringing a tap to our toes and a snap to our fingertips along the way.