Stephen Houldsworth Explores Archetypes and Double Standards with 12 Drummers

One example of the raw concert photos on display in the 12 Drummers exhibit. - Photo by Stephen Houldsworth
Photo by Stephen Houldsworth
One example of the raw concert photos on display in the 12 Drummers exhibit.

“I don't see myself as a fine art photographer. I'm not trying to produce a product that looks like it was done by a professional either,” says Stephen Houldsworth, local activist and avid concertgoer. Of the many roles he plays in the city of St. Louis, his work as guerrilla photographer at smaller shows is his most understated. On Saturday, he will present twelve pictures of shirtless drummers – men and women alike – at Box, located in the Cherokee Street neighborhood.

For Houldsworth, his 12 Drummers exhibit is an intersection of his life as a music fan and vocal advocate for marginalized communities. The title bears reference to lyrics in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but that's the only thing this set of photos has in common with the holiday classic.

“I definitely see this as an experiment. It's been an exciting process for me because I haven't looked at my photographs in this way. For the most part, my photographs have been an in-the-moment kind of thing,” he says.

click to enlarge Stephen Houldsworth - Photo by Graham Matthews
Photo by Graham Matthews
Stephen Houldsworth

Houldsworth and his husband Graham Matthews attend so many shows per year, they were named “Best Fans” in our Best Of St. Louis issue in 2012. Matthews is often seen front-and-center, capturing footage with his camcorder while Houldsworth is more nimble, moving in position to grab raw stills of performers in motion.

See also: DIYnamic Duo: Meet Stephen Houldsworth and Graham Matthews, St. Louis' Best Music Fans

If the duo is spotted at a show, other fans can be sure that photos and footage will appear online in the next 24 hours. Houldsworth's own Facebook photo stream is a gathering ground where very little is filtered or altered. In this way, he presents, in plain sight, what happened. Matthews' Youtube channel is handled in a similar fashion, with videos only removed at the behest of the bands or acts involved.

“The vast majority of pictures I've taken never get looked at again after the day after a show. So the idea of going back and looking closely and looking deeply has really been a great process for me, in terms of thinking about the photography,” Houldsworth adds.

Houldsworth attended more than 500 concerts in the last five years alone. Since he nets roughly 100 photos a show, he estimates tens of thousands of photos had to be sorted through before finally arriving at eight selections taken at live events. The other four photos in the exhibit were partially staged at private practice spaces. For him, the pictures on display fall into three separate categories.

“Of course there are pictures of drummers playing at a show. Those are all men because you're usually not going to see women playing shirtless at a show,” he says, alluding to the topless trope featured in the exhibit. “The second is not in the act of actually drumming, but before or after the show, in relation to the drum.”

The third group focuses on drummers in their private practice spaces. This was vital, given that the exhibit focuses on shirtless players as a theme and Houldsworth had no intention of keeping the show male-centric. His solution was to stage these photos of women playing topless. He counts Box owner Sarah Michelson as a major component and influence on the exhibit.

“Sarah [Michelson] approached me and told me she liked some photos I had taken of an event at Box,” he says. When he revealed his idea of having a photo exhibit, Michelson not only offered to host, but she encouraged and influenced the show as a whole.

“We talked about how to 'free the nipple' and the gender inequality present in the idea of a shirtless drummer that's male and how women were not allowed to do that,” he adds. “Drumming is broad. The show is a story that challenges what is the role of the drummer, what is the drummer doing? It's an engagement with that,” he says. And while the story is told through twelve framed photos placed throughout the space at Box, the opening reception on Saturday also offers live drum-centric performances by Sean Ballard, Drew Gowran and Buffalo's CCDS – Death Squad. Houldsworth stresses that while 12 Drummers opens at 6:30 p.m., the event will be over by 8:30 p.m. because he hopes to catch other shows happening on Cherokee Street later that evening.

“The picture that I end the show with is one that I feel expresses this idea of leaving everything on the table. When the drummer is fully engaged, there is nothing left at the end of the show. Everything has been given. Everything has been expelled.”

12 Drummers opens on November 21 at Box (3350 Ohio Avenue) and will be on display for one month. For more details, visit


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