Home Feature Articles On Parade: Behind the scenes at a California Independence Day celebration

On Parade: Behind the scenes at a California Independence Day celebration


How time flies! A year ago I wrote an article describing the 2021 Independence Day celebrations in Coronado, California – held after a two-year Covid-imposed hiatus. Since then, the earth has completed a full orbit around the sun, Wales has qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1958, and I have added to my collection of photographic equipment – bringing us neatly to the 2022 Coronado July 4th celebrations, held just over a week ago.

As last year, I volunteered to join the photography team covering the event, hoping to put some of that new camera gear into action along with insights gained from my 2021 exploits.

Stealth mode

Among the comments received on that earlier article was a suggestion from Farhiz Karanjawala, one of Macfilos’s regular contributors and commenters, that I insert myself into one of the parade teams and capture a ‘behind the scenes’ perspective on this magnificent spectacle. What a great idea!

So, this year, although not going as far as hanging about with a single group from pre-parade preparation to post-parade perambulation, I did potter around the staging area, snapping posed and candid shots of parade participants as they prepared for the event.

In this first report on the day, I cover what I witnessed during that pre-parade phase, as performers and spectators geared up expectantly for the start of festivities. In the article to follow, I will cover my favourite scenes from the parade itself — a two-hour feast of marching, music, military pride, motor cars and mayhem.

Follow that smell

Last year, cycling through side streets on the periphery of the parade just after the event, I surmised from the lingering smell of horse manure that this must be the spot where horse-drawn carriages and mounted participants waited their turn to join the procession.

This year, led by my hypothesis, I made a beeline for this location, confident I would catch some equine antics. Indeed, I discovered an array of horses, horse boxes, and horse lovers grooming their steeds and polishing their carriages. The horses stood patiently, behaving impeccably as locals posed with or petted them and their owners adjusted their Victorian attire or cavalry uniforms. Many waited for over an hour before the parade, some sheltering under the shade of huge eucalyptus trees, posing this peripatetic photographer a few challenges managing exposure and contrast.

The herd comprised both working animals, for example, those employed by US Border patrol agents for negotiating otherwise inaccessible stretches of the nearby US-Mexico border, and those owned by individuals for the pleasure of riding through the picturesque San Diego countryside. Their presence in the parade reflects the central place of the horse in the pioneering of the West, reinforcing the link between this year’s parade and those held throughout the United States for the last two hundred and fifty years.

Hello sailor

Our island neighbours serving at the North Island Naval Station are perpetual contributors to the annual July 4th parade, the march along the parade route by the Navy Band Southwest being a particular highlight.

Their pristine white uniforms shine and their brass instruments sparkle in the bright Californian sunlight. Ahead of the parade, they are in relaxed mode, perhaps sharing impressions of the latest Top Gun movie (filmed in part at their base), instruments set to one side on the road. I photographed several naval groups, in fatigues and processional uniforms, posed and unposed, unarmed or wielding a rather intimidating machine gun. I could not resist taking a selfie of my reflection in one of their beautiful tubas.

There’s a club for that

If you thought local organisations joining the parade might be confined to the Rotarians, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and Table Tennis Club, you have greatly underestimated the number and diversity of societies within the greater San Diego community. It seemed that they all turned up in the Coronado July 4th parade.

Where to start? Sports clubs, cosplay groups, political parties, historical societies, meditation groups, car clubs and music societies, to name just a few, are all to be seen. Naturally then, representatives of all these organisations were to be found milling around chewing the fat in streets adjacent to the parade route, until summoned to enter at their allotted position.

Countdown to Coronado Cosplay

The enjoyment of ‘dressing up’ as someone else apparently persists well into adulthood, with a large number of those adults making the pilgrimage to Coronado each year for July 4th.

The Star Wars franchise comprises a plethora of colourful characters of every size, shape and gender, affording a golden opportunity for cosplay fans to march along in the guise of their favourite hero, villain or alien. Happily, no lightsaber fights broke out whilst I was photographing this crew. As well as characters from a galaxy far away, figures closer to home, albeit drawn from human history or mythology, also put in an appearance, some sporting beards that look so real they must be fake.

It can’t be…

In light of the close association between military facilities in San Diego and the Top Gun movie franchise, it is imperative that Tom Cruise or someone who looks remarkably like him put in an appearance at each Coronado July 4th parade. That winning smile, perfect tan, and slicked-back hair are instantly recognisable, and he clearly enjoyed being photographed by me. Is it really Tom though, or his doppelganger? Come the parade, the crowd doesn’t care, as individuals (mostly female) scramble onto the street to grab a selfie with him.

Making it happen

The parade is a locally organised, volunteer-supported event, dependent upon the vision and organisational skills of the steering committee and city officials for a successful and memorable outcome. Preparations are closely monitored by members of the organising team, parade participants are guided and cajoled into place by stewards, and event security is assured by a discreet but extensive police presence.

Commentators stationed on scaffolding towers along the route introduce each parade participant while providing detailed instruction to those drawing ‘poop circles’ on the street, into which they hope a passing horse will deposit a steaming and malodorous gift. Enterprising youths offer lemonade at exorbitant prices and even employ remotely controlled robotic vehicles to tempt the crowd with refreshing bottles of water.

Gathering crowds

By ten o’clock, everyone has their spot, ideally installed on a comfy seat, in shade, wearing a hat and sunscreen, accompanied by plenty to drink. Whiling away the time between bagging their favourite place and the start of the parade, the more exuberant crowd members feel moved to dance; the less exuberant turn their attention to beer pong.

And we’re off!

A lone police officer strolling down Orange Avenue, politely asking folk to clear the street, followed by a police vehicle moving at walking pace, marks the start of the parade. We’re off!

In the next instalment, I will share highlights of the two-hour procession that followed.

All photographs in this and the following article were taken with the Leica SL2 equipped with the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-70mm f/2.8 ASPH (née Sigma) zoom lens.

Read more from Keith James

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  1. Hi Joerg-Peter, thanks a lot! It was great fun being an amateur photo-journalist for an hour. As I mentioned to Farhiz, I think the organizing committee might well ask someone to cover this ‘behind the scenes’ aspect of the event routinely in the future. As Mike E predicted, this lens is ideal for situations like this. I debated purchasing the Sigma 24-70 versus the Leica 24-70, but finding a used Leica model in excellent condition closed the price gap sufficiently that I went with the ‘native’ lens ;). The images I captured with it are superb, especially when viewed on a large, high quality monitor. I am very happy with my purchase! All the best, Keith

  2. Great reportage work, Keith. Enjoyed it a lot! Your grouping of photos organizes your story in a wonderful way. And your images might convince the one or the other to settle for the Sigm – er – Leica 24-70 instead of the stellar but massive 24-90. JP

  3. Great all round coverage, Keith. Glad you found the suggestion helpful and even more you acted on it. And a nice bit of detective work on your part in tracking down those horses. Looking forward to the next roundup.

    • Hi Farhiz, thanks again for the suggestion! I suspect in future a photographer will be routinely assigned to cover those pre-parade preparations as part of the overall event coverage. It was good fun and a rare opportunity to photograph anyone I bumped into as an official member of the volunteer team. I also found it enlightening to see all the pre-work that goes into such an event. All the best, Keith

  4. Keith

    Great story and images! I wish I was there with you.

    Your images make me pleased I recently purchased the same lens. Though, how did your arm feel at the end of the day? Was it noticeably stronger than at the start? 😉

    I am looking forward to the next installment.

    • Hi Paul, glad you enjoyed the article. Hopefully, the next installment will be out soon. The lens is phenomenal. I had no difficulty carrying the camera-lens combo over my shoulder for three hours, as well as a Billingham bag with two additional lenses inside. Perhaps I am more tolerant of the weight than other commentators on the Macfilos site! Thanks again, Keith

      • It is interesting what you notice when you are casually handling something vs. when you are actively using it. If you are busy your brain focuses (pun intended) on what is keeping you busy.

        Since you mentioned it below. Which monitor do you consider worthy?


        • Hi Paul, I have an aged 27” Apple LED Cinema display from 2010. At the time it was an expensive, high end monitor that connected directly to Macs via Thunderbolt. Sometimes I have to unplug it and replug it to the mains supply to wake it up, but it still delivers beautiful images. I had a quick look online and you can still by used or refurbished ones for around $350. Cheers, Keith


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