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 http://www.americana-uk.com).

(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.

Reference

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