A.F. Cortes on Blood, Tempo, Storytelling & Manual Focus

A.F. Cortes on Blood, Tempo, Storytelling & Manual Focus

In this latest Skills Hub piece, Brooklyn-based filmmaker, photographer A.F. Cortes, shares how his relationship with music paved the way to develop a unique voice as a photographer, as well as the most crucial element of music photography—music itself— helped him evolve into a storyteller.

A.F. Cortes on Blood, Tempo, Storytelling & Manual Focus

In this latest Skills Hub piece, Brooklyn-based filmmaker, photographer A.F. Cortes, shares how his relationship with music paved the way to develop a unique voice as a photographer, as well as the most crucial element of music photography—music itself— helped him evolve into a storyteller.

Header image: Blue Anxiety Photo: A.F. Cortes

INTRO: My Dive Into Sound, Part I

There's a famous phrase in American politics, "It's the economy, stupid," coined by pundits in the '90s to say no matter the candidates and political party, many vote with their wallets first. I would apply the same schematic approach to music photography. Music is FIRST! How we capture the moment is secondary in nature. It’s all about the sound, a moment in time, and the story. My favourite images let me think about the chronicles behind them. Let me go back in time.

Circa 1990, I was a teenage kid riding my BMX bike through my hometown, Bogotá in Colombia. I remember passing by an independent record store, the iconic New York City Hardcore The Way It Is compilation on vinyl released by Revelation Records was sitting in the window display. I couldn't afford to buy the album, also at the time, I was into black-death-thrash–metal and grindcore (that's what I call my "easy listening" years). I was intrigued by the cover: an iconic black and white photograph shot by the one and only BJ Papas featuring the band Gorilla Biscuits. The chaos of a punk show was imminent, a stage full of people showing no boundaries between the audience and the band, the singer screaming his heart out, a crowd surfer trying to grab the mic, someone else ready to jump, and some kids with an X on their hands. It was absolute mayhem, and to me, it was beautiful. I told my friend and bandmate, Raul, about my find, and he got the album. It changed our lives. We dissected every part of the photo, and it opened the door to so many bands. It was the first time we listened to Sick of It All, Youth of Today, Supertouch, Bold, and obviously Gorilla Biscuits. Glad we judged the book by its cover.

Keep in mind the current reality at the time; Colombia was engulfed in civil war between the cartels, guerrilla, paramilitary, and local government. All that stuff you see in movies and streaming TV series really happened. No international band ever dared to visit our land (except an infamous Guns and Roses show that lasted only 25 minutes due to a heavy November rainstorm, but that's another story). We only had our local scene.

My friend swiftly quit our rudimentary metal band and joined a hardcore one. Me... oh well, I found a new bass player, I sold my BMX bike, and I got myself a guitar amp, one that the gain would go to 11. It was the beginning of our better years as a band. We started to play larger shows in all the local venues at the time. Band members came and went, and we shared a rehearsal space with Raul and his new band until my band broke up. Ultimately, our internal musical tastes began to change, but our audience didn’t. I discovered Sonic Youth, Coil, Godflesh, Faith No More, and John Zorn. My ears were open, and though my music career was over, I fell in love with the visual side of artistry and attended design school.

Raul later opened a music venue in Bogotá, and he was responsible for organising the first Agnostic Front show — the legendary New York City hardcore band — in Colombia back in 1999. They were the only crazy dudes who would dare visit Bogotá while the country was in turmoil. Obviously, his band was the opening act. The same year, I moved to NYC to work in advertising. I attended every show I could find listed in the local newspaper and got myself a crappy point-and-shoot camera* (more on that in a couple of paragraphs). Unfortunately, I did not attend my friend’s show, as my life was about to take a different turn in a new land where I didn't speak the language.

Was the iconic black and white NYC Hardcore album cover photo the element that ignited it all? I do not know, but it pushed us in the right direction. Unfortunately, my friend passed in the early 2000s as a victim of local violence, and we never celebrated those moments together.

Gorila Biscuits Photo by: BJ Papas 1988


As photographers in the music industry, we must shoot from our gut; our work is visceral and in the moment. No matter if it is the latest album cover for a significant artist or if someone jumps from a make-shift stage in a DIY punk show. Freezing time with a photo is everything. But unfortunately, time is never on our side, and there will be blood...it could be a bloody-almost-broken nose from a stage diver because you didn't remove your camera from your face in time before the BIG jump (it happened to me but got the picture!) or making mistakes because we only have 15 minutes to pull that editorial shoot required for an assignment (happened to me as well). But blood will be on the floor, literally and figuratively. It sucks that we learn the most from mistakes and not from victories.

Dreamcrusher Photo by: A.F. Cortes

TEMPO: My Dive Into Sound, Part II

Each person moves at their own tempo: extremely fast grindcore, syncopated jazz, slow, ethereal as ambient. Music is personal; it defines who we are, our friendships, our dress code, and our world perception. It could also evolve as we do as humans.

There was no IG, Flickr, or social media early on, so a point-and-shoot camera with rolls of 35 mm film was my weapon of choice. I only had a little money as I was restarting my life in a new country, so many times, I didn't develop the film or just got prints at the one-hour photo, not paying much attention to the negatives. I kept the images as precious memories of my favourite artists. There was no secret agenda, and I had no idea that becoming a music photographer was possible.

Many years passed, and one thing evolved into another. Fast forward to 2009, and I started to do more work related to filmmaking; I think it was the perfect storm. I maxed out my credit card and got myself a shiny brand-new Canon 5D; it was the first full-frame camera with the capability of shooting HD video. It was a game-changer in the industry. Ironically, I ended up using the camera more for music photography. I only had one lens, but that was the beginning of my journey. I shot many shows or at least the ones I could document without a photo pass...until my camera got stolen! I ended up in debt with no Canon 5D, ouch! I had to downgrade to a cheaper model but whatever. I believe the best camera is our ear.

At the same time, websites like Flickr allowed me to be part of a community of like-minded individuals. I was hooked; music made me a photographer. I was never a photographer interested in music; I was a music fan, a former musician, and a creative professional who learned to use a camera and became a photographer. That passion leads me to mix my work as a filmmaker and photographer. To me, the most crucial part of our work is storytelling.

Alexandra Blair (Silk War) Photo by: A.F. Cortes


Photography is part of my personal story; it reflects my ever-evolving musical interests. The best images are the ones that formulate questions for the audience. We need to see ourselves as storytellers of our little ecosystems. My path as a photographer led me to create projects at the intersection of films and photography. I've been able to direct music videos and documentary films for many artists I deeply admire.

My work in photography opened the doors to work with some of the artists that changed the mind of my 15-year-old self as I collaborated on projects for Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Roddy Bottom (Faith No More), Boris, and series of films sand magazine cover for Quicksand, whose lead singer and guitar player Walter Schreifels was the co-founder of Gorilla Biscuits. He is performing in that iconic photo I mentioned at this piece's beginning, a circle-closing moment. It is my small universe, but I never take anything for granted, and I keep enjoying those "head-exploding emoji" situations.

Boris + Uniform - Album Cover and music video by A.F. Cortes

Manual Focus:

The manual focus lies in the personal take on music. To me, it is what gave me a voice as a photographer. As I opened this essay, I believe that a great photograph comes from our guts; it is personal to our story. Back in 2016, I put all my interest into shooting the local scene as I thought it was more interesting than photographing big bands at large stages. The local scene gave me clear focus, friendships, and bands that are now on the international stage, and I was there when they played in front of 5 people.

One of my favourite bands is Bambara. I saw them for the first time at Union Pool, a small venue in Brooklyn, in front of 20 disinterested individuals, then crushing The Glove (a defunct DIY venue), later when they toured with Idles back in 2019 playing to mid-size crowds, and post-pandemic opening for Foo Fighters in front of +17,000 people. It is more important to be part of a band’s story in their early days when no one is paying attention. There are no agendas, and there is only a mutual love for the music. Then, the photography becomes honest, you are telling a collective story, and you become unapologetically yourself. So, to me music photography is not about photography; it's ONLY about the music.

Bambara Photo by: A.F. Cortes