Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Sense of Place

By Christopher Scribner

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  The Mississippi Delta has long fascinated Americans. In Dixie Rising, Peter Applebome notes that the region is "still such a presence that people always talk of going 'into the Delta' as if the place should have border guards and crossing gates." The Delta stands in counterpoint to many American ideals and expectations--it's rural, undeveloped, and poor. It has a timeless element too. And it is, to borrow the title of a book by historian James Cobb, "the most Southern place on earth."

For a place with such a prototypically Southern image, the Delta has a surprising past: It was not extensively settled by whites and African Americans until after the Civil War. Thus the region's racial and economic legacy, as well as its rich cultural history, do not date from the Old South or slavery but from sharecropping, tenant farming, and other traditions that marked the postwar South. This most Southern place has also nurtured a distinctive element of American culture, the blues. A homegrown combination of work songs, spirituals, and white folk music, the blues reflect the sorrow and the pride of the Delta's black population.

Bill Steber, a staff photographer for The Tennessean, has made more than 30 trips into the Delta since 1992, in an ongoing effort to document both the traditions and the practitioners of the blues. Sixty-two of his prints are currently on view in a stunning show at MTSU's Baldwin Photographic Gallery. The legendary bluesman Robert Johnson once sang, "I got stones in my pathway/And my road seems dark at night/I got a pain in my heart/It has taken my appetite." Steber, a lifelong blues fanatic, titled the show "Stones in My Pathway" after this song. The photographs on display mix portraits of blues players with moments from juke joints and rural vistas of the Delta.

Steber says he wants to capture the cultural context of the blues, a context that has begun to vanish in the wake of the growing homogenization of American culture. "The purpose of my photographs," he explains, "is to answer the question, 'Why did the blues come from this area?' This was once one of the country's pure cultural meccas, and I want to record what's left of the remnants of the old culture before it's changed or altered irrevocably." Steber's work does convey the relationship between the Delta's people and contemporary blues; however, he has just begun to place the music in its cultural context.

All 62 of the plainly framed black-and-white photographs include spare descriptive titles, such as "Cotton," "Baptism," "Parchman Band," "Jimmy and Friend," "Jukin' at Thompson Grocery," and "Sun Session Music Man Mose Vinson." The simplicity of the titles plays off the full range of contrasts in each picture and the resonant emotional chords that many of the images evoke.

"Stones in My Pathway" has two parts, although it is not formally divided as such: one group of photos is a study in people, while the other is a study in place. The exhibit includes 34 portraits, most of them posed, although Steber also mixes in candid shots of musicians at work. Most of these portraits have a spontaneous feel, even as the photographer utilizes a vast array of techniques to convey the personalities of his subjects. Steber says he shot some of his subjects up to eight times in an attempt to capture their true character.

Delta rhythm
Bluesman David Johnson, one of the Bill Steber images on view in "Stones in My Pathway" at MTSU's Baldwin Photographic Gallery.

Most of the portraits are tight shots, and in many the artists hold their instruments, although few play them. More often than not, Steber hones in on the musicians' hands and their faces, especially the eyes, and he uses selective depth of field to draw the viewer in. The effect can be striking, especially when the subjects' gnarled hands and lined visages contrast with their sharp, clear, and eager eyes. The weakest portrait, interestingly enough, is of B.B. King, the best known of Steber's subjects. Unlike the other prints, this one, featuring the guitarist posing by some railroad tracks, feels like a publicity shot. It's stylized but lacking in emotional depth.

Steber's photographs of the region itself depict agricultural and religious traditions, along with the joyous release that takes place regularly in the area's juke joints. Three photographs from this body of work stand out. In "Cotton," a single cotton plant stands in sharp focus in the foreground, while in the hazy background a figure dragging a croker sack bends down to pick a plant. In another, several people stand waist-deep in Moon Lake as a preacher and deacons ready to baptize three anxious girls. A water-stained tree frames the ceremony, its bare majesty conveying a sense of timelessness about the impending event.

A third picture, taken inside a juke joint, suggests the vital connection between the blues and the people who live in the Delta. In the right side of the print, Steber shows a couple dancing. All we can see is the back side of the man--whose belt tells us his name is Jimmy--and a woman's arm around his waist; nevertheless, the limited detail tells us everything we need to know about these two people. On the left, in soft focus, is a bluesman whose music has unleashed the rush of romantic possibility hinted at by the dancing lovers.

With these photographs, Steber confronts the central dilemma of his project. He says he wants to capture "what's left of those traditions [that shaped the blues], not create a contemporary portrait of what life is like in the Delta." The elderly couple picking cotton, for instance, is an anomaly in today's Mississippi. In this regard, Steber's enterprise resembles that of the famous American photographer Edward Curtis, who in the early 20th century took pictures of Native Americans recreating their folk traditions. In other words, he's trying to capture the past after it's gone.

Complicating matters further is the fact that these photographs avoid confronting the brutal and degrading aspects of the Delta's past. But Steber's work stands on its own regardless, for his straightforward, documentary style prevents him from romanticizing his subjects. Steber's photographs do contain glimpses of the region's difficult past--in the wizened faces of the people, in the spare furnishings of the clubs, and in the (all too few) shots of people's homes. But by holding back, Steber ensures that we feel no pity for his subjects. Moreover, his juke joint pictures show the continuing vitality of the local culture. The Delta blues, we understand, is distinct from the commercial blues now riding a crest of popularity in American culture.

Steber's project began in the fall of 1992 after he completed an assignment about the Natchez Trace for The Tennessean; on his return trip, he decided to travel back to Nashville via Highway 61, which cuts through the heart of the Delta. On an impulse, he visited the home of Son Thomas, a bluesman, folk artist, and gravedigger. The visit "blew his mind," he says, and his pictures that day were the first of more than 12,000 he has since taken of the Delta and its people.

Steber says he does not know when the project will end. He once held the illusion that he could complete it in three or four visits, but no longer does he feel that way. "The more time you spend there," the photographer says, "the more doors you open and questions you raise." In the meantime, we can all enjoy the rich photographic results of his travels.

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