Bayside professor celebrates black marching bands with new photo project

An image from Jules Allen's new book, "Marching Bands."
Images courtesy of Jules Allen/QCC

Renowned photographer and Queensborough Community College professor Jules Allen has chosen to celebrate the culture of black marching bands across America with the publication of his fifth photography book.

The book, “Marching Bands,” is a culmination of Allen’s fascination with the topic. He began documenting black marching bands in the 1970s after first seeing them in yearly New York City parades and he believes they “breathe the soul and spirit of Africa within the modern world.”

“I had never seen black parades growing up, so when I started seeing this swagger and this rhyme and drum beat, I was like, ‘What is this?’” Allen said. “It was captivating and delicious.”

He continued a loose documentation of black marching bands for years later and was inspired to probe deeper into the subject in 2005. It was at this point that he began to organize trips across the country to photograph bands of all sizes at different events, from homecoming celebrations, to battle of the bands and cultural parades such as Juneteenth events commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Allen said that as part of his project he would go to their meets before performances to learn more about the bands and he was struck by the musicianship and rigorous organization of the ensembles.

“They didn’t just march around aimlessly,” Allen said. “There’s a great deal of discipline, intelligence and practice that goes into organizing an 80-piece marching band.”

The photographer has also had considerable success with his previous photography projects. His work has been featured in the New York Times and in museums and private collections throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art.

Allen has chosen to shine a light on the black experience through his choice of subjects in previous books such as “Black Bodies,” a book of nudes fighting the negative characterization of the black female body; “In Your Own Sweet Way,” a collection of intimate photographs taken while traveling in Africa, and “Double Up,” an examination of the world of African-American boxers at a famous gym.

Although Allen has published four of five of his photography books with Queensborough Community College, he believes “Marching Bands” to be his greatest piece yet.

“I think this book is going to be a really beautiful book, by far the most beautiful book I’ve done, and no one else has offered me more latitude or volume than the QCC press,” Allen said.

QCC Art Gallery Executive Director Faustino Quintanilla is a longtime collaborator, with the two having met in the early 1990s and producing the gallery’s first ever published book together, “Hats and Hats Not.” Both believe that an artist must create his own work in order to really be able to connect to students and teach in a meaningful way.

“These books provide a permanent artistic record of what we do and serve to promote intellectual curiosity for the arts,” Quintanilla said.