Walker Pickering is focused on the behind-the-scenes moments and camaraderie that power the on-the-field precision of marching bands.
A self-described “band geek” who carried a tuba onto the field from high school through college, Pickering has shot more than 6,600 images of high school and college bands and drum corps for his “Esprit de Corps” photo series. The project — launched via a friend’s invitation in 2008 — has taken the assistant professor of photography at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln from sun-soaked high school practices in west Texas to the most recent Cornhusker Marching Band bowl trip in Nashville, Tenn.
“Marching band really changed my life,” Pickering said. “First, as a freshman in high school, performing was the first time I experienced something collectively that was so positive. I was certain that it would lead me to be a high school band director.
“That didn’t work out. But it did have a lasting effect, drawing me into art and eventually into this photo series.”
The work started unintentionally as a friend asked Pickering to take photos of an ancillary drum corps practicing at Texas State University. Inspired by those first images, he started attending drum and bugle corps performances and focused on behind-the-scenes moments.
“My intent was to take photos for myself,” Pickering said. “I shot a lot of stuff and, over a period of time, looked back and decided there was something special there. That’s when I started approaching local high school band directors in Texas with requests to shoot their bands.”
Throughout the project, Pickering has focused on off-the-field moments, documenting practice field drills, warm-ups outside performance venues, uniform prep and, in a few images, the actual blood, sweat and tears that marching band members endure.
“I’ve only shot a handful of performances,” Pickering said. “They’re great, but not what I’m interested in.
“When you are in a band, the camaraderie that unites these young performers forms through the drills and moments as they prepare for performances. That’s what I want to capture in this series, the band experience that became such a big part of my life back in high school and college.”
Since coming to Nebraska in 2014, Pickering has expanded the project to include the Cornhusker Marching Band. He’s a regular on the sidelines during football game days, pointing the camera primarily at the band — of course. He also tagged along with the band during practices and performances at the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.
A Hixson-Lied Research/Creative Activity grant from Nebraska’s College of Fine and Performing Arts allowed Pickering to print, frame and purchase a crate to allow the “Esprit de Corps” images be shipped and featured at museums and galleries. The photos showed in a solo exhibition at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas, and will be featured at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, Nebraska, later this year.
“Esprit de Corps” images have also been included in multiple group exhibitions, including a faculty exhibition showing through Feb. 3 at the Eisentrager•Howard Gallery in Richards Hall. Pickering has also created a video that can play alongside the exhibit. A short preview of the video is available online.
Pickering’s trip with the Cornhusker Marching Band provided an unofficial end to the “Esprit de Corps” series. He’s recently begun work on a new project that focuses on roller skating rinks and is working to publish the band images as a book.
“If more opportunities come up, I might extend the band work,” Pickering said. “For me, the series was too addictive to officially end. Musicians are my kind of people and I love working with them.”
For more information on Pickering’s photography, including “Esprit de Corps,” click here.