Stephen Bybee is often a wanderer by night and has been for some  years. The photographer’s carefully composed black-and-white images of Columbia at nighttime have resulted in something of a historical time capsule for the city. In a new exhibit with photographer Tony Irons, Bybee is showing several of his photographs at Tellers Gallery and Bar for the rest of March. Scenes from last year’s freak blizzard, a historic Laundromat on Paris Roadthat now stands empty and a street scene highlighting the glow of the second-story KOPN sign winking out across Broadway are a few of the picturesque images betraying a sense of nostalgia and perhaps even of mysticism.
Bybee looks for scenes “that you see in the daytime that don’t look quite as intriguing or magical as they do when night kind of envelops them and changes them, alters them,” he said. “It’s kind of like nighttime gives a heightened reality, or a heightened sense of poetry, to things that we see every day that we just take for granted.”
After first majoring in English at Westminster College in Fulton, Bybee studied photography at Columbia College and the University of Missouri. That choice was perhaps not made in creative isolation; his father taught high school photography classes for 30 years and helped Bybee learn the basics during his childhood. The formal education Bybee later received was largely in traditional film photography, which captivated his eye and set a course for his photographic vision, he said. Immersing himself in the photography of 1930s and ’40s artists such as George Brassaï, Walker Evans and André Kertész, he emerged with a motivation to pursue black-and-white photography.
But why nighttime photography?
“I had a job in a bakery, so I would work till really late,” Bybee explained, “and the only time I had to photograph was evening or nighttime. And once I started to get a few images back, I was really hooked by it … the visual, the aesthetics of it and then the magic of photographing at night, when there’s no one else out.”
The crux of Bybee’s college artistic productions took the form of a high-quality photo book, which he made and bound with the help of a friend at Legacy Bookbindery. The book borrows snippets from Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and other philosophical poets as a way of setting the narrative scene for the imagery to spread out and fill. Many of the shots capture the brownstone or dilapidated exteriors of buildings, the weird, warm glow of vintage neon signs or the stillness after a new snow. A few timely images caught the temporal, icy lace on trees and the park benches that one by one have since disappeared from Ninth Street sidewalks. Many times, Bybee said, he will return to a place he photographed years ago and reshoot the scene, aware of how the city has changed between those two shots.
“Sometimes there will be something in one of these photos that’s not there anymore that Columbia used to see and take for granted and that has changed now,” he said. In that way, his work has begun to become something of a visual documentary testifying to the historical and industrial beauty but also the transitional nature of Columbia. One example Bybee pointed out was the Peking Restaurant, then on Ninth Street, which has since been replaced by the nightclub Tonic; the building now has an utterly nondescript exterior. Bybee bemoaned the disappearance of the glowing vintage sign that used to indicate the presence of the restaurant. “It was just a beautiful landmark, and every time it was on, it just kind of warmed up the street,” he said.
Although Bybee’s photography pursuits began as simply a search for artistic moments and hidden treasures that he could find in his roamings, often focusing on pure contrast and form, he said he has over time moved toward the documentation of old buildings and preservation attempts — for better or for worse. Several years ago, he began a project to document old rural churches around northern Missouri, and the project is ongoing. There is a fine line “between trying to artistically portray this beautiful old structure and trying to capture an image of it for a very straight-ahead documentary-type purpose,” he reflected. “I never know which side of that line I’m going to settle on.”
The nature of Columbia’s downtown seems to be changing even more quickly as of late, he added, with historic houses and other buildings being torn down to make way for student housing. Photographically speaking, he said, “you kind of take on this mantle of wanting to preserve it willy-nilly.”
Bybee’s involvement in the near-downtown community extends to his involvement in Access Arts, the not-for-profit organization that celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. He teaches photography classes to adults and often takes them on “shooting trips” around town.
Although black-and-white photography constitutes much of Bybee’s body of work, he also keeps a photo blog displaying color photography. Shots that appear on that site, he said, are not so much components of an ongoing narrative like his night series or church series. Rather, they are stand-alone moments that jumped out at him at the time, each of them a curious or unabashedly artistic snippet of life that “has something speaking for it,” he said. These moments arise from his more intentional photographic wanderings; they are shots he finds “in between the cracks.”
– By Jill Renea Hicks
Columbia Daily Tribune