For some time I’ve been work­ing on a project about musi­cians and the work they do. This started as an inves­ti­ga­tion into the rela­tion­ship between work, con­sump­tion and leisure in the lives of cre­ative work­ers. Here, the pre­car­ity of being a worker in the infor­mal econ­omy, depen­dent on an active, pay­ing audi­ence and (prob­a­bly) a low-paid part time job to make a liv­ing is coun­ter­bal­anced by the sense of doing some­thing that sat­is­fies the soul, that reflects a desire – often spo­ken of as a need – to be cre­ative. We could have a dis­cus­sion about whether being a musi­cian counts as work. On the one hand, the drudgery of clocking-in and clock­ing out, the monot­ony of work­ing on the line, or the soul-destroying pre­sen­ta­tion of a happy smil­ing face to a grumpy cus­tomer are replaced for the musi­cian with all the auton­omy and cre­ativ­ity a man can take (sub­ject to the pref­er­ences of the mar­ket and the dik­tats of the label, if you find one). And on the other, from the hours of prac­tice to acquire skill, to the schmooz­ing of pro­mot­ers, the labour processes of pro­duc­tion, pro­mo­tion and per­for­mance that go into mak­ing this life are hard work.

More inter­est­ing though are the sub­tle man­i­fes­ta­tions of work within the life­worlds of the peo­ple I stud­ied, all British, all play­ing some­thing loosely describ­able as ‘Amer­i­cana’. The project became a pho­to­graphic one, and in a minute I’ll write a few words about the daft­ness and delights of explor­ing the work of a musi­cian using a silent medium. In the mean­time, take a look at the clothes worn in the pho­tos below. Style inspi­ra­tion from Tom Joad: checked shirts aplenty, bought from Top Man or Urban Out­fit­ters in imi­ta­tion of a home­spun Amer­i­cana, this ‘plaid’ work­wear was pre­vi­ously worn by a class of white agri­cul­tural work­ers who’ve since dis­ap­peared. The echoes are still seen and heard in the back­rooms of pubs and on the small stages of provin­cial the­atres, and have been for some years. Nowa­days such check shirts, with their con­no­ta­tions of hard, mas­cu­line, man­ual labour can be seen on the backs of all sorts of folk, not just the musi­cians. But the Amer­i­cana revival in Britain has played a role in this fash­ion, and is tied in with a notional claim to authen­tic­ity whereby the aes­thet­ics of cloth­ing suit the aes­thet­ics of the sound.

But you can’t see the sound. Plaid shirts are one of the clues as to what you might imag­ine the sound is, assum­ing you have any sense of what Amer­i­cana might sound like (and if not, there are plenty of rec­om­men­da­tions on

(Click on image to see full pho­to­graph with ana­lytic notes).

I started tak­ing the pho­tos in order to see dif­fer­ently the forms of work that made up per­for­mance: unload­ing, set­ting up, sound check­ing, and the trans­for­ma­tion of the body needed to go from heft­ing amps to win­ning the atten­tion of an audi­ence. The first shots were in colour, the sec­ond and sub­se­quent ones in black and white. Black and white seemed more fit­ting, given how in using pho­tog­ra­phy (not video, not sound record­ing) I’d already removed enor­mous amounts of sense-data any­way. Reduc­tion is the aim of most social research – take the com­plex­ity of the social world and make it man­age­able. Remov­ing colour, move­ment and sound leaves the focus on the bod­ies at work, how they move, how they are held. So I built four sets of images of per­for­mances, all to focus atten­tion on the body as it works on stage.

Silence and immo­bil­ity under­pin the author­ity of the pho­tog­ra­phy” sug­gests Lury (1998: 173). But I think she’s wrong. It’s impos­si­ble not to notice the silence here, and this is desta­bil­is­ing as it makes clear the utter par­tial­ity of what a pho­to­graph can ever claim to rep­re­sent. Like all forms of social research, using pho­tog­ra­phy as a way of gath­er­ing data and analysing the world pro­duces only a small story of a sort of truth. Any reminder of the par­tial­ity of any rep­re­sen­ta­tion is an impor­tant and use­ful form of humil­ity. Notic­ing what is miss­ing mat­ters as much as remark­ing on what is there. And think­ing about what might be there in addi­tion to what can be seen is more than a par­lour game, it is an act of imagination.


Lury, C. (1998) Pros­thetic Cul­ture: Pho­tog­ra­phy, mem­ory and iden­tity. Lon­don: Routledge.