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In Focus: music photography with Jennifer McCord

January 2022
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One great photo can tell an artist's life story, a raw visual accompaniment to the music complete with originality and authenticity.

In this series, we speak to Creative Commission member and photographer Jennifer McCord who discusses her working life as a music photographer and offers her top tips for capturing the better artist photos.

Jennifer McCord is a London-based portrait and lifestyle photographer. Intimacy and emotion are at the centre of her work, creating powerful images with a narrative feel that show the true energy of the humans she photographs.

She has spent the last six years photographing some of the biggest names in music and entertainment, both on and off stage, whilst honing her distinctive style.

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What are your best five tips when shooting artists or bands?

  1. Look for a different angle. Is everyone crammed in one side of the pit? Step back and shoot from somewhere else, find the shot that no one else sees.
     
  2. If you’re shooting on stage, try to be discreet. It’s not always possible as the imagery/video that some artists want might require you to be following the artist, but try to keep it to a minimum and respect the audience’s experience.
     
  3. Listen to an artist’s music ahead of time if you can. This is especially useful for a live environment as it can help you predict when an artist might do something dynamic on stage, e.g. a jump shot.
     
  4. Photograph all types of music, photograph things that aren’t music, photograph your dog, photograph your friend that hates having their photo taken. All of this trains your eye and makes you a stronger photographer.
     
  5. When doing portraits with an artist, give direction! They’re not models, and many musicians don’t like having their photos taken, so make them feel comfortable by making sure you’re able to communicate and be clear about what you want to create on set.
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How did you get into photography, and did you always know that was what you wanted to do?

I have always loved taking photos from a young age. I was the kid who would use all the frames up on a disposable camera in the first five minutes and would make their friends do ‘fashion’ (HEAVY commas on that) shoots in the park down the road.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I realised it could be a job. I always thought I wanted to be a writer, but then I found Flickr and came across Nirrimi Firebrace’s work and online journal - I was obsessed. The way she captured her world and had turned it into her work was mind-blowing for me. I thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer at first, so I emailed every designer showing at LFW and managed to get in to shoot backstage at Oliver Spencer’s show which was terrifying and amazing. I was 17 and had no idea what I was doing. At that point, I told my parents I didn’t want to pursue university, and I wanted to be a photographer. I think they were shocked and understandably terrified at first, but they’re now super supportive. 

I slowly found work by people like Adam Elmakias and Ryan Russell, they were photographing music in a way I’d only seen photographers like Annie Leibovitz do, but they were doing it with bands I loved. From there, I emailed a band that had followed me on Twitter who were touring the UK for the first time and asked if they wanted a tour photographer - they said yes! I haven’t looked back since. I was so naïve back then, which I think was a blessing, I didn’t know how hard the industry could be, and I was so headstrong and fearless I just threw myself into it.

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Which artist(s) would you most love to photograph, and why?

Oh god, there’s so many. I think FKA Twigs is fucking amazing and, I just have so much respect for her artistry and the worlds she creates, so she would be someone I’d love to collaborate with.

Paramore and The National are both bands that I think are just wonderful, and I’d love to work with them. Aaaaand Taylor Swift because she’s such a phenomenal powerhouse, and I love the emotion she puts into things.

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What was your first photography job or commission in music?

I got paid a little bit for the first tour, but after that, it was probably the first press shoot I did, a local band I’d met from shooting shows.

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What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

There’s a lot of great things I’ve learnt from people over the years but the two that stick in my head are ‘stay hungry’, something that documentary photographer John Cole told me, I’m never totally satisfied with things, I always want to be better and do more and the idea of stagnating is terrifying to me.

The other is that it’s ok to say no. It sounds so obvious, but I think we’re often made to feel like we have to take a job even though we know it’s not properly paid, or it’s not a good fit creatively, and I almost always regret those jobs. Sometimes, especially in the first few years, you have to take jobs for financial reasons, and I totally back that. The starving artist thing is bullshit, but when you can say no, and you’re able to let go of that client that wasn’t well suited or valuing your time and throw your energy into something that is, I think that’s really powerful. Just because we work in a creative industry doesn’t mean we can’t set boundaries.

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What advice would you give to budding photographers just starting out?

  • I already said this above but shoot EVERYTHING. Shoot all the time. Practice makes perfect. 
  • Be kind. Make friends and help others. Having a community and a support system in this industry is one of the most amazing things. 
  • Keep on top of you’re accounting and invoicing. Trust me, it’s not as complicated and as scary as it sounds. If you’re not sure about something, most accounting firms will be willing to answer minor questions for free.
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For more of Jennifer's work, check out her Instagram.

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