Capturing the Spirit of America's Marching Bands

Walker Pickering chases memories of his time as a youthful marching band musician. The spirit of the bands is found in the "in-between moments", not on the football fields, he recalls.

© Walker Pickering, from the series Esprit de Corps. Uniforms are lined up beneath an overpass during warmups for the DCI Southwestern Championship, Blue Stars Drum & Bugle Corps, The Alamodome, shot in San Antonio, Texas.

Walker Pickering is an artist whose photographs range from marching bands to his ancestral homeland in the American Deep South. A native Texan, he lives in the Midwest where he teaches photography, video, and bookmaking at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally, and is included in a number of private and public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Wittliff Collection of Southwestern & Mexican Photography.

I understand you have a background in music. How did you begin to work on your project, Esprit de Corps?

Because of my background as a high school and college marching band member, I’d always had a thought at the back of my mind that it would be interesting to return to the activity in some way, but after changing majors from Music Education to Art in college, it seemed unlikely. Several years after graduating, an old college friend was working with a group and invited me out to see and shoot them, and though the original images are no longer part of the final edit, it was that shoot that made it seem realistic to pursue this idea. However, I always feel like I have a hard time pinning down the actual start date for the project, because it turns out I’d actually made some work off and on in years prior to that at DCI (Drum Corps International) shows and just forgotten about it.


© Walker Pickering, from the series Esprit de Corps. Bin, Trumpet, The University of Texas Longhorn Band, Austin.

Can you explain the title of your project?

Esprit de Corps translates to "the spirit of the group". It’s what I loved most about marching band (and music ensemble playing in general) and seemed a fitting title. I think I originally heard it as the title of a piece of music by composer, Robert Jager.

How did you select the bands you photographed?

I mostly asked friends from college who’d gone on to become band directors themselves, but I also have a few friends currently or formerly involved in DCI that proved to be invaluable contacts as well. If I could shoot with a group, I did, and none of them disappointed.

For how long were you traveling with the bands?

I didn’t actually travel with any of them. Most shoots were only when our paths crossed, and at most, they spanned 3 days. I usually had only one shoot with the groups.

How did you gain access to the behind-the-scenes of each band?

Again, that access from friends made all the difference in the world. I wouldn’t have pursued the project seriously if I had to shoot as a total outsider.

© Walker Pickering, from the series Esprit de Corps. A Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps mellophone player sports an Amercia-themed cap, shot in Allen, Texas.

It seems to me like you were responding photographically more to the "in-between" moments rather than the main events. What are your thoughts on that?

I’m glad you noticed that. The public performances, while nice, were the least interesting to me photographically. That’s the part of marching band and drum corps that everyone’s already familiar with. I was far more interested in reminding former musicians what it was like to do the work of marching. My best memories came from the practice field, not the football field.

Would you say your background in music helped you anticipate the moments?

I’d say it helped me understand how the activity runs better than someone from the outside who didn’t realize how drills are rehearsed. I knew I could plan where to be because I understood the director’s instructions for each repetition. I think some people would be at risk of being mowed down by a sprinting bass drummer because they didn’t understand that the next time around the group was told to continue to the next set.

To learn more about this project, visit Walker's PHmuseum profile

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