A gun and a gas pump nozzle. A golf ball and a water tower. A selfie stick and a syringe. What do these things have in common? They’re all photographic mash-ups made by Stephen McMennamy, an Atlanta-based ad man whose “combo photos” have grabbed the attention of 136k Instagram followers on his @smcmennamy account.
The project began as a way to satisfy artistic urges left unfulfilled by his creative director position at BBDO. “Clients don’t want to be as creative as creative people sometimes,” says McMennamy. As a 16-year veteran of the industry, he’s climbed the ranks only to discover that he’s become less of a “doer” and takes on more of a managerial role these days. “I’m not out there making things like I used to,” he says. “I think that’s why a creative person gets into advertising: they like the executing of the work, the making it. I created this project for myself to open that door again.”
One day, while fiddling with a collage app on his phone, he merged a photo of a balloon and his then four-year-old daughter’s face. Something clicked; an obsession was underway. In the early mornings and weekends, McMennamy began looking for more unlikely but aesthetically interesting couplings. He also upgraded from the iPhone to “beefier” equipment (a Sony A6000 mirrorless digital camera) and switched from an editing app to Photoshop. CNN, Wired, Adweek, and Fast Company were among the media outlets that picked up–and raved about–the work, best described as “thumb-stopping.”
McMennamy’s images are fun, focused, bright, and surprising. “A lot of my work is driven by my desire for simplicity and quick visual communication,” he says. “I always feel like whether it’s consumers of art or consumers of advertising, simple wins and simple’s good.” He also likes matching man-made objects with natural things. “I think some of that is calling attention to our subconscious and how industrial design is influenced by the world that we’re in and around,” he says.
People who’ve seen McMennamy’s work often erroneously assume the photographs were taken for brands because the pictures feature iconic products. “If I use a bottle of Tabasco, I’m using it for a reason,” he says. “It’s part of the concept. I need people to recognize what it is. If I turned the label out or took the label off, it doesn’t mean as much. I’m not Andy Warhol by any means, but in the same way he used iconic logos as part of his work, I use it as part of the storytelling.”
The photos aren’t just visually striking, however; they also seem to contain subtle messages about American eating habits. “The food takes on a very large scale,” McMennamy says. “There’s a statement there about how we eat and how there’s not a lot of control with portion size.” A box of Fruit Loops poured into dump truck, a cupcake perched on a toothbrush, donuts stacked in a wheelbarrow – these are carefree, smile-inducing images. Others are more sinister, suggesting commentary on genetically modified food, such as a banana peeled to reveal an ear of corn or a Marlboro box bursting with french fries. Given that McMennamy’s father, an agricultural engineer, moved the family to the Philippines for five years to participate in a philanthropic project during McMennamy’s childhood, it isn’t too far of a stretch to say there must be more depth to the food imagery than meets the eye.
McMennamy’s abstract work plays on similarities between textures or shapes: a white fluffy poodle with a piece of cauliflower for a head, wheat stalk blended with braided hair, or a paintbrush with spaghetti noodles instead of bristles– his most popular photo thus far. That pic happened on a whim during a 90-minute window between dropping his daughters off at school and leaving for work. The spaghetti boiled while he showered, then he scrounged up tomato sauce and a paintbrush. He took the photo and posted it the next day; it currently has 33.5k “likes.”
“It blew up,” he says. “It’s a little bit odd, and frustrating, and funny, that this thing I very hastily threw together ended up [like that]. I wish they liked the one I spent two weeks on. At the same time, I’m grateful and appreciative.” Even after the image spread around the Instagram, McMennamy couldn’t kick the thought that he did it “wrong.” He decided the paintbrush should be painting, not pointed downward, so he reworked the image, then put it to a vote on Instagram. Those who commented proved very passionate about which version they preferred. Ultimately, the original image won.
That instant gratification and engagement is what keeps him on the social media platform despite plagiarism. People re-post his pictures without credit. An artist in the UK painted one of his images and sold it. A Dutch restaurant requested use of his photos, but after McMennamy named a price, he was accidentally CC’d on a message saying, “That’s too high. Can’t we just copy the images?”
There’s an upside to the visibility of his work, however. Companies have approached him for commercial projects, but he hasn’t taken advantage of those opportunities yet. “I haven’t wanted to or felt the need,” he says. “I’m trying not to be too greedy about it. At one point, I felt that I didn’t want it to be commercialized in any way. At the same time, I don’t need to be precious about it, either.”
For now, prints of the images are now available for purchase online and he launched a second Instagram account, @combophotofail, for outtakes. Who knows what will come of the combo photos next. “The internet and Instagram are the Wild West,” he says. “You can’t have control over it. I made a conscious choice to jump in and be a part of it.”