Photographer Spotlight: AF Cortes
Next up in our #PhotographerSpotlight series, we welcome New York City-based multidisciplinary artist, AF Cortes!
AF’s incredible imagery was nominated in two categories last year (Underground Scenes & Undiscovered Photographer of the Year). We sat down with AF to discuss his key advice for anyone starting out, building a portfolio and a particularly memorable experience with singer-songwriter, Zola Jesus.
How did it feel to be nominated in the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards 2023?
Honestly, I couldn't believe it! When I saw my name next to the words “Abbey Road,” it felt surreal. I'm a filmmaker and photographer, and music is the common thread that ties all the elements of my work together. It's the reason I do the type of work I do every day. It might sound cliché, but it was an emotional moment. In some crazy way, it reassured one of my most important questions: am I crazy for following my passion?
Why do you think it is important to create a platform like the MPAs to showcase music photography?
Creating this platform is crucial because it elevates the work we are doing. Most of the music photographers I know are incredibly passionate about music, so having an institution with the heritage of Abbey Road provides a platform that makes our work more relevant. I strongly believe that music is an ecosystem, and as creatives, we contribute to telling the stories of the musicians we admire and love. We are all part of a larger narrative, so the more connected we are, the more interesting work we can create.
Have you seen any benefits to you since being nominated?
I believe the benefit is personal. I dedicated many years to documenting the local NYC scene, and it makes me believe there is a larger purpose behind doing so. I'm also in post-production for a feature documentary film on the same subject, so this recognition will help raise awareness for some of the projects I'm working on related to music.
As a creative, I often doubt things I do, but this recognition is a reminder that the work we are doing matters. I'm confident that we will see more benefits in the near future. My work has been exposed on a global platform, and that's invaluable. I am truly humbled by the entire experience. Most importantly, my mom was extremely proud!
How did you fall into music photography specifically?
Music is the common thread in everything I do. I played in a band when I was younger, and I attended shows regularly. In the early days, I carried a point-and-shoot camera with me; it became a part of my daily routine. During the film photography era, I often forgot to develop the film or couldn’t afford it. However, when I made the switch to digital cameras, I was hooked. At the time, I was also writing a TV series, spending most of my days typing on my computer. Going out at night to shoot shows became an escape from the daily routine.
I started sharing my work on platforms like Flickr, which led to minor recognition from local magazines and bands that began using my photos. While it wasn’t a major breakthrough, it did provide me with opportunities to obtain photo passes and publish in a now-defunct music publication.
I continued working with local bands, documenting studio sessions, and capturing portraits. However, I believe it was in 2014 that I became active on Instagram, and that marked a significant turning point. Finally, we had an ecosystem where music and visual arts seamlessly intertwined. Music photography provided a unique voice to my filmmaking work, and now both are seamlessly merged as most of my work revolves around creating music-related films.
What makes a good subject in music photography and what makes a good music photographer?
good music photographer is someone who has a personal connection with music. While many photographers can capture a great image of someone playing a guitar, what truly matters is the story. It’s the story of the subject and our own narrative as photographers. It’s not just about the photos; it’s about conveying the feeling and the energy of the moment. Technique is not as important as the visceral connection to music.
In my opinion, the best subjects are those who create work that I personally love. When that happens, I have a unique angle to tell their story. Often, the most fulfilling feedback I receive is when someone says, “I’ve never heard of this band or artist, but now I’m going to their show or buying their music.” To me, that’s mission accomplished!
What advice would you give to someone getting started?
My two cents on advice are as follows: Don’t worry about photographing the biggest bands or obtaining those “impossible to get” photo passes. Sometimes the best show happens in the subway or under a bridge at midnight.
So, follow your instincts, not trends. A good photo connects with the audience on an emotional level. It doesn’t matter whether you capture it with an iPhone, the latest 1000 megapixels Canon, 35mm film point and shoot, or a vintage Hasselblad from the moon. If the photo conveys the emotion of the music, that's all you need.
How did you go about building a portfolio?
Having a unique voice is crucial to me. In this day and age, we all have access to similar tools, so the question becomes: how can we make our images stand out? I firmly believe that prioritizing quality over quantity is the superior approach, a principle I also apply to my Instagram. I do understand that it can be challenging to self-edit at times.
It's equally important to develop a distinctive vision for your work, one that complements the type of music we are covering. I consistently strive to step back and analyze what gives a photo its uniqueness and how I can present a different aspect of the artist's story.
How do you create a distinctive style and visual identity in your music photography?
This is a great question because I haven't thought deeply about this subject before, and it makes me reflect. I would say the best way I try to create my visual style is by crafting images that tell a story. This inclination may stem from my background as a filmmaker. I've always been drawn to black-and-white photography because of how timeless it feels. I believe my style originates from limitations; when I started, I had only one camera and one fixed lens, which wasn't ideal for music photography, but it pushed me to develop a unique style at the time. Although I now have access to more tools, I still endeavour to maintain a simple approach.
When shooting a live show, how do you prepare? What challenges do you typically face?
The main challenge always revolves around dealing with unexpected lighting scenarios and sometimes feeling like I'm fighting for my life! Ha! It might sound crazy, but one of my definitions of happiness is the chaos and elation of a great show. I absolutely love being in the midst of an insane pit with happy concertgoers as we all let go and enjoy the music.
To prepare, I start by looking at other photos of the band and thinking about where on stage I want to be. For example, if my main focus is the bass player, I might start on their side of the stage. If it's a large show, it's easy to move around. But sometimes in a punk or indie show, you can get stuck in your place, trying to protect yourself (and your equipment) from stage divers and the overall beautiful chaos. So, it all comes down to location, location, location...that might be my first move. And that's it——enjoy the show.
As photographers, we are the most privileged people in the audience. Never take it for granted!
Do you have a preference for working on location/on tour vs in a studio?
Take every opportunity that comes your way——ALL of the above!!
Creativity / Inspiration:
Can you share some insights into your creative process? Are there any specific techniques or equipment you prefer to use?
Idle time is important; it's a way to feed your brain with other forms of art, which I find critical for my creative process. Sometimes, I take the morning off to visit a museum and take notes. Those notes often become the catalyst for a music video, photoshoot, or project I'm working on. A leisurely walk in the park is equally important to me, even though I don't have much time these days as I juggle being a dad to a beautiful two-year-old girl, making films, and being a photographer.
Lately, I've taken up street photography as a form of therapy. This started during the pandemic. I enjoy wandering the streets with my camera aimlessly, and this has also allowed me to learn new concepts that I can apply in my regular work as a music photographer.
From a technical perspective, I keep it simple: the faster the lens, the better. I prefer cameras that support higher ISO settings as I try to avoid using a flash. In the past, I made the mistake of carrying too much gear, which often led to me losing track of what was important. These days, my motto is “less is more.” If it doesn't fit in my small bag, I don't need it. Of course, if you're shooting a large venue, you may need to bring that big, bulky telephoto lens. However, my secret weapon isn't a camera but my messenger bag, which allows me to move quickly, change lenses in seconds, and keep my eye on the stage.
In your opinion, what distinguishes a remarkable photograph from an ordinary one? What elements do you prioritise when framing your shots?
The subject, plain and simple. My favourite photos are technically easy to replicate, but they are incredibly unique because of the subject and the moment in time they were captured. For example, Danny Clinch's studio shoot with Tupac, Patti Smith holding the John Coltrane album in a record store, or Mick Rock's early work with Syd Barrett —— these images are timeless, evocative, and exceptionally beautiful.
When framing my shots, the main priority is the light. Typically, when working with bands, everything is hectic, and there's no time for extensive setups. Therefore, the light becomes the commanding factor in shaping my frame.
Do you think there’s a genre of music that naturally lends itself to photography?
I don't think so. We are documenting music, not the other way around. In the end, we all need to shoot from the inside out. So, whatever we are most connected to is what we will do better. At least, that's what works for me.
Who is someone, alive or dead, you’d love to photograph?
Alive: There are so many artists I would love to collaborate with. Some of these I've covered live, but a portrait session with Nick Cave, NIN, Metallica, PJ Harvey, Godflesh, or Einstürzende Neubauten would be fantastic to shoot or create a music video for (I guess because their music has been integral in many stages of my life).
Dead: In the realm of live music, capturing The Sex Pistols or The Birthday Party at their heyday would have been amazing. I'm sure those shows were gnarly, unexpectedly crazy, and beautiful. A portrait session with COIL could have been magical; they are one of my favourite bands. I feel fortunate that I got to see them live back in 2001, even though I wasn't taking photos seriously at the time.
Working with Artists:
How does your approach differ when working with upcoming talent versus established artists?
It's exactly the same. For live photos, I prefer smaller shows and upcoming artists because I find those shows to be more hectic and unexpected. When it comes to portraits, editorials, and music videos, I believe our relationship with artists should be built on mutual trust and respect.
Can you share an interesting or memorable experience you've had while collaborating with an artist?
The first thing that comes to mind is the live performance section of a music video I shot with Zola Jesus. To tell the full story, her manager initially contacted me about a potential photo session at the recording studio where she was working on her new album. It was meant to be an intimate setting, and they requested a quick in-and-out session with minimal equipment and no assistants. Without any hesitation, I said yes.
However, a couple of days later, the manager called again, this time mentioning that they wanted to capture the recording of the song on video instead, with no photos involved. While the conditions remained similar, my immediate response was, “Are you crazy? I need lights and a crew. I have to collaborate with my director of photography, scout the location, get a gaffer, a grip, a focus puller —— it's a complex operation!”
The manager's reply was firm, “No, we can't do that. It's the studio's last day, and we're out of time. But I trust YOU, and I know you can do it. The shoot is happening in a couple of days on August 30.”
To which I responded, “That's my birthday!” The manager sounded concerned and asked, “Do you have any other plans?” I replied, “Now I have a private show with Zola Jesus.” I hung up the phone and honestly freaked out.
While I'm comfortable working alone and quickly when shooting photography, shooting a live performance for a music video usually involves a crew and careful preparation. So, when the day arrived, I kept it simple: one camera with one lens. I didn't rent any fancy equipment; I strategically placed one portable light next to the piano, dimmed the studio lights, and started rolling after a 10-minute equipment setup.
Nika (Zola Jesus) performed the song "DESIRE" for me three times. It's a deeply personal track for her, a tale of loss and grief. Her performance was incredibly moving. I'll never forget an artist whom I deeply admire, seen live many times, and had just officially met a few minutes earlier, pouring her soul into a grand piano while singing. I was inches away, holding a camera, trying to keep my composure.
In less than two hours, I was in and out of the studio, and I truly felt like the luckiest person in the world. I couldn't believe I had managed to pull it off. I'm eternally grateful to Nika for her trust and to her manager for pushing me out of my comfort zone. Officially, it was the best birthday ever. A few months later, we shot some additional scenes in my studio and turned it into a full music video. During that second session, I captured the portrait of Zola Jesus that would later be highlighted in my nomination as Undiscovered Photographer of the Year.
How does the photographic process differ between working with introverts and extroverts?
As an introvert myself, I maintain a consistent approach when working with people. Whether I’m capturing portraits, shooting a documentary, or creating a music video, it’s crucial to be prepared and have a clear idea in mind, even though things may change during the process. I emphasize listening and limit my talking to what is necessary and important to build trust.
Have you ever been starstruck when photographing someone? How do you overcome that?
I’ve been starstruck many times, but I always remind myself that we both choose to work together, and I maintain my concentration on the task at hand. I never take anything for granted or become jaded. I feel fortunate to have collaborated with many artists whom I deeply admire, especially in my photography and music video work.
Business / Social Media
How has social media shaped music photography, both as a craft more generally, as well as your personal work?
This is a fascinating topic. I believe social media has become critical to the work we do as photographers. It’s an incredible platform for building an audience and creating relationships with artists, editors, labels, and all parts of our music ecosystem. However, it’s also challenging. My Instagram is primarily dedicated to music (90%) with the remaining (10%) showcasing other images that I find personally interesting to share, making it a way to keep my work personal.
I strive to keep my feed interesting, and I am selective about what I post. I firmly believe that quality is more important than quantity. I don't let the audience dictate the type of work I create. I've always believed in taking risks and embracing change. It's interesting how the algorithm tends to favour certain types of posts, but I enjoy challenging myself as long as I'm proud of the work I'm posting, and it aligns with the story I'm trying to tell as an artist.
What are some common mistakes new photographers make when starting out on the business side of things, and how can they be avoided?
I believe a common mistake is not opening yourself to conversation. Trust me, I'm an introvert, so it's not in my nature. However, engaging with your peers in the pit is essential. Most of my significant opportunities have arisen because someone recommended me. You never know who's standing next to you, so be nice. I strive to build non-transactional relationships.
From an existential perspective: It's not a sprint; it's a marathon. I've seen many people start with fantastic work and lots of energy, only to get burned out in a couple of years. So, my advice is to be consistent, keep doing it, stay humble, maintain your energy, and learn from all types of photographers —— not just those in music. Wear earplugs and stay hydrated. But most importantly, ENJOY THE MOMENT.
In one word, how would you describe your photography?
Image credit: Paul Terrie