Bill Steber: Documentary Photographer, Musician, Man of Southern Mystique

Ashley Taylor with 2-year-old daughter Aeriella. Colleytown, Centerville, TN. Tintype photo by Bill Steber.

From Krishna Adams, Director of Visual Arts, Craft, Media, and Design –

 When Bill Steber embarks on documenting the world around him, it’s much more complicated than just grabbing a camera and tripod as he walks out the door; he brings the darkroom with him, literally. When he hits the road in the van, it is stocked with everything from chemicals, multiple cameras, and tripods, to a dark box and darkroom. It takes 30-45 minutes just to set up to shoot a photo and each photo may take up to 12 minutes to be exposed. Why does it take so long? Steber has a deep passion to get the sound of the moment to come through his photos and to make the magic happen; he uses a traditional 19th-century collodion wetplate tintype process.

Using the darkroom in his new van, Bill Steber documents his family with 19th-century tintypes at the Bell’s Branch Family Reunion on September 24, 2016 in Hickman County Tennessee. Photo by Pat Casey Daley.

Steber is the 2020 Tennessee recipient of the highly coveted State Fellow, South Arts Fellowship, a $5,000 award (given to only one Tennessean a year) in acknowledgment of his extraordinary documentary photos that capture the essence of the South. He explained that a friend told him about the fellowship and encouraged him to apply but the deadline was quickly approaching. Steber focused on selecting photographs that best cohesively represented his recent work and sent in the application. While he is most recognized for his photos documenting Mississippi about 20 years ago, he is deeply rooted in Tennessee. He is honored that his family can be placed in middle TN as far back as the 1800s. 

 Born in rural Grinder’s Switch, Steber grew up in a creative home environment that encouraged him to look for his own way of expression. His grandmother was a cornhusk dollmaker and quilter, his mother is a painter and his sister is an artist. It’s no wonder when his father gave him a camera at age 10 he would find a way to incorporate photography in his life.

Upon high school graduation, Steber enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro for degrees in English and photography. In fact, after graduating MTSU, Steber was hired on as a staff photographer for the Tennessean where he was the newest member of his family to work at the newspaper. If his father had worked at the paper, Steber would have been the fourth generation. His great-grandfather was a writer when the newspaper was called The Nashville Democrat. His grandfather was a sports and outdoor writer and originated the outdoor conservation column, Headwaters ‘n Tailfeathers. Steber worked at the Tennessean from 1990 to 2004 and received over 40 regional and national photojournalism awards.

 If you ask Steber about his photos he will tell you it’s all about music. For Steber, music is everything and every moment of his life is defined by music. In his photographs, he hopes to capture the visual essence that expresses the music he hears at that moment. And looking at his photographs, it’s easy to pick up the rolling songs of the South. It’s no surprise that he is also a musician and plays in a pre-war roots, bluesy jug band, the Jake Leg Stompers under the moniker Hambone Willie Nevil.

“Since 2005, I have been pursuing the use of 19th Century collodion wetplate photography for my Southern documentary work, discovering that the patience required for the difficult fieldwork and long exposures bring out in the subjects a deeper essence. Though cloaked in the visual artifice of an earlier time, I find that these tintypes and ambrotypes speak to themes that make the South unique, namely, connection to history, family, and the land.”—Steber

Bill Steber performs with the Jericho Road Show at Lown in Tokyo, Japan. Dec. 17, 2018. Photo by Pat Casey Daley.

 What’s next for Steber? Well, his photography is in a traveling exhibition, Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South curated by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, SC. The exhibition will be on view at the Meridian Museum of Art in Meridian, MS, June 12–September 6, 2020, The LSU Museum of Art, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA, October 22, 2020–February 14, 2021, Lake City Creative Alliance in Lake City, SC, May 21–August 13, 2021, and The Windgate Museum of Art at Hendrix College in Conway, AK, September 10–December 10, 2021.

He is currently working on multiple documentary photo book projects including one focused on his grandmother and another potentially centered on Hickman County, a collection of wetplate collodion photographs over the past 13 years documenting Hickman County. You can learn more about Steber and his work at