Walker Pickering was a self-described band nerd. He played the tuba in the marching band throughout high school, and, convinced that one day he would become a high school band director, entered college as a music major.
“I learned pretty quickly I didn’t want to do this at all,” he said. “I was like, what is all this music theory about?” He quickly shifted majors, began studying graphic design, and eventually graduated with a degree in photography.
But Pickering, who grew up in a musical family where he played multiple instruments, didn’t turn his back on the marching band. In 2009 he began an ongoing series, “Esprit de Corps,” that combines his love of photography, nostalgia, and collective performance with a focus on high school and college marching bands, as well as music related groups not connected to a school.
The project began by chance when Pickering went to visit an old friend who was part of a drum and bugle corps. On a whim, he brought along his camera during one of her practices and started taking pictures. He found the images to be intriguing and started reaching out to his network of friends and colleagues who were still part of the marching band scene to see if he could photograph their rehearsals and performances.
Pickering quickly realized the in-between details were capturing his attention more than the main events.
“I don’t usually like to shoot performances at football games so much,” he said. “It’s just so boring. It’s what everyone shoots. I’m interested in having a lot of behind the scenes access, that’s what I value and what I’m interested in doing.”
For Pickering, being a part of the marching band as a teenager was a chance to be part of a group of like-minded people. But, in many respects, the idea of the marching band felt outdated to him, something that is really only supported by the friends and family of the students who participate in it.
“When I got into band, I finally felt like I was part of something bigger than me and it was really exciting,” he said. “But if you go to a football game it seems like a weird anachronism, a lot of the crowd doesn’t care. It’s almost for a lot of people, the marching band is tolerated, but I think [the band does] a really good job of trying to make themselves relevant within that culture.”
Shooting the series is also a chance to document details that are unique—and often outdated—to marching bands including the outrageous uniforms.
“Many bands still utilize a very traditional style of uniform,” he said. “The majority of bands and drum corps, however, seem to have opted for a look that updates every few years, changing with the style of the day. There’s a strong chance that these uniforms will look funny and dated in a decade or two, and I hope the work serves as a sort of time capsule in that way.”
There is one thing that probably won’t go away anytime soon: band battle scars, the sign of a dedicated band member. Pickering said carrying around the tuba during his marching band days caused a callous to form on his shoulder.
“In high school and college, a kind of lump developed on our shoulders and that stayed there for the entire season.”
Update, Oct. 29, 2014: The headline on this post has been updated to clarify that while all the photos were taken in Texas, all the marching bands are not based in the state.