New Yorker Keith Montero considers his career path into photography as serendipitous. The hobby since his youth transpired into a full time job after he contemplated whether or not to take the leap while sitting on a plane one day staring at the world thousands of feet below. Life could be different, he thought. He could be different. If only he would take the risk.
Back then, in 2014, Montero worked in an office doing backend inventory for a duty-free freight forwarding company, a “boring ass job” he puts it bluntly. But it allowed him to pay for a few semesters of college and save toward his first real camera, a Canon 5D Mark II. It’s what he used to document one of his earliest freelance assignments — a CrossFit seminar in Trinidad and Tobago.
When Montero returned from the trip, he was laid off from his desk job. He wasn’t upset. It was the sign he needed, “my ticket to move away,” as he puts it. A few months later, Montero packed one suitcase and his camera gear, booked a plane ticket bound for New York City and showed up to an apartment in Bedford–Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.
Assimilating in New York
He had arrived in New York to make his vision of becoming a photographer in “the Big Leagues,” as Montero calls it, more real. “I was always into living here,” says Montero, 33. “When I moved to New York, I was very much motivated to try to make something out of it.”
Yes, there’s a sense of intimidation about New York, he admits. Fast-paced, cut-throat, a sink-or-swim environment, the city is not exactly the best place to be if one is lacking confidence. But it is the scene to be in if one has it and understands his direction. The city will test you as much as it will push you to develop into who you want to be. For Montero, he wanted to be a lifestyle and sports photographer.
Moving to New York in the summer of 2015 brought him back to his roots. Montero was born in the East Tremont neighborhood of the West Bronx. Growing up, his father would simply call him “Keef.” His thick New York accent masked the proper pronunciation of Keith. The childhood name would eventually inspire Montero’s Instagram handle, @keefshoots.
Montero was primarily raised in Miami though, where his parents moved when he was four. Throughout childhood, Montero’s mother would give him disposable cameras, and he would take pictures mostly during family vacations, from the costumed characters at Disney World to landscapes in Cuba. Naturally, Montero developed an inclination for photography, an interest that would continue to develop.
When Montero enrolled at Florida International University intending to study physical therapy, he realized his passion lay in the darkroom instead of in the classroom learning about anatomy. The lone photography course he ever enrolled in for a semester before he dropped out of college involved shooting with black and white film and developing the images himself. He still remembers the vinegar-like scent of photo chemicals used during the darkroom processing.
Montero’s parents attempted to dissuade him from opting out of college and encouraged him to change his major to photography instead. “That’s a waste of time and money,” he told them. “I’m not taking out loans for something I can learn on my own. And if I learn on my own, I develop my unique style anyway,” he explained.
YouTube offered a different kind of education. Tutorial videos helped Montero glean the know-how about the more finite technical elements of photography, like color correcting, retouching techniques and frequency separation. A bit of rough experimenting in the beginning helped Montero smooth out his abilities. “Trust me, my early days editing were really bad,” Montero says, laughing. “It takes time to develop your own language.”
He describes his photography language as “make you think” type of work. “I like your eyes to travel in a photo,” says Montero, adding that he is often inspired by architectural lines.
Interning at a marketing agency, Love the 88, his first job in New York, was a stepping stone that contributed to Montero developing his style. As part of his role, he assisted the agency’s lead photographers for projects that involved social media product shoots for companies like Bloomingdale’s, a luxury department store, and Master & Dynamic, a premium audio brand.
“I came here [to New York] motivated to get paid to use my camera, whatever it was, as long as it wasn’t wedding photography,” Montero says. “I was keen to see what I gravitated toward.”
The advantage of working at the agency was that it exposed Montero to a variety of networks, and he eventually segued into sports. In 2017, he was hired as the Chief Photographer for Adidas Runners New York, a community of runners representing various neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens. The opportunity took Montero out of his element – he wasn’t used to photographing large groups of people in motion (upwards of 100 runners can show up for a single training session). Year one was learning how to do so while riding a bike, his go-to method for capturing movement of masses. Sometimes, he’ll run with his camera.
When his schedule allows, Montero likes to run and cycle for play. He doesn’t label himself as an athlete though, more of “an enthusiast,” he says. “I’m not training to compete.” It’s a fun way of maintaining some form of discipline. “I just jumped in, and it was easy because I have so many friends that do it,” Montero says of being “super fresh” in both, having started in 2020.
Most weeks, his double digit running mileage complements a couple of long rides as long as 70 miles. And when he runs or cycles, his mind can’t help but stay in photography mode. “Creatively, I am being stimulated by whatever I’m seeing, a nice road or a descent, imagining how that would be captured,” Montero says of his experiences on the bike. Running can sometimes seem like location scouting just as much, the way he absorbs the architecture of his environment. He saves a lot of mental notes for future reference.
Montero refers to his personal exploration of running as a dance, something that was bound to happen considering how much running is part of his world. But Montero insists that a half marathon is as far as he’ll take his body. “I’m not really down for that,” he says of the idea of running a marathon. “Not in the cards for me.” Montero is convinced he gets enough satisfaction and a vicarious experience by running around with his camera in hand during training sessions and at races. It offers a different excitement and pace.
In the future, Montero envisions potentially organizing a pop-up photography exhibition or a small-circulation self-published work, like a book or a zine. “I see the value in something old school and presented well,” he says. “I should really develop some personal stuff. I’m in that mode of pushing myself.”
The New York way.