If you happen to stumble on Vancouver photographer Conor Cunningham’s Instagram account @mescondi, you may find that you are unable to stop scrolling.
The 23-year-old’s fashion editorials and eccentric photographs incorporate immense creativity, colour, and wild use of simple props and scenery. In short, the photos are drop-dead gorgeous.
Cunningham—known professionally as Mescondi— has a distinct talent for finding the colour in Vancouver—no matter what time of year it is—and conjuring a unique, nostalgic world all his own.
“I wanted to make the pictures look like how I want the world to look. I want everything to be really bright and colourful and beautiful,” Cunningham told the Straight.
Cunningham’s work has appeared in publications like British Vogue, Complex, and DROME Magazine. He has worked with Riverdale star and fellow photographer Cole Sprouse, and shot campaigns for brands like Reebok and Taikan. Next, he’ll be shooting a campaign for OBEY.
But Cunningham only seriously picked up a camera just a few years ago.
“I always loved doing art in any kind of aspect. It just took a while to figure out what artistic route I wanted to go through,” said Cunningham.
Once he started taking photos, he was hooked. So Cunningham bought a cheap camera and dropped out of Simon Fraser University.
Through Mescondi’s lens
When Cunningham shoots for a brand like Reebok, his work is primarily based on aesthetics. But for his own creative projects, it is all about world-building.
“I usually like to pick my models based on if they fit into a character I have for them going into the shoot,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham is very specific about the models he works with, and favours those who can give him a sense of nostalgia. Each photo has to give him a special feeling. A lot of the time, that emotion is evoked through setting—whether it be his “secret field” in Burnaby, or a school-bus park on Commercial Drive.
Cunningham’s photography is so saturated and whimsical that it almost gives the impression of being shot in California. But like two of his favourite influences—directors Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino—Cunningham brings out the colour in whatever setting he is in by incorporating strategic framing and costume styling.
“I kind of trained my brain to pick out colour,” said Cunningham. “Even going back to my childhood—cartoons, cereal boxes, that kind of stuff—it pops. And I wanted my work to really pop.”
The saturation so associated with his photography is caused by using flash in the sun.
“It really separates the model from the backdrop. And that furthered the character aspect of it [my work],” said Cunningham.
Right now a lot of his inspiration comes from old skate culture and hip-hop videos. With his new photo collection, Cunningham explores the use of the fisheye lens.
“It’s such an old, used way of shooting. But I want to bring it back and incorporate it into the style of stuff that I do,” said Cunningham.
A fisheye lens is unnaturally wide, and the smallest tilt changes the distortion on the face of a model.
“It’s quite difficult to use. But when you get it right, it looks phenomenal,” said Cunningham. “I was super excited and it just kind of broke down a creative block that I had. It gives you kind of a new world to shoot in because it’s not just what’s in front of you. It’s what’s beside you, it’s what behind you… It’s everything.”
Influences and method
Stylistically, there are some distinct correlations between Cunningham’s photography and that of 25-year-old Toronto-born photographer Petra Collins, who is one of his biggest inspirations.
Collins has become extremely successful, shooting for brands like Stella McCartney and Calvin Klein. But she does not conform to what a brand typically wants. Petra always does Petra.
“She’s never done anything outside her style or what she thinks is good. I try to do that too,” said Cunningham.
With his recent shoot for Reebok—which has yet to be released—Cunningham tried to do his own thing, he said.
“I never want to be the guy who’s just there to click a button. If someone hires me, I want them to hire me for me,” said Cunningham.
Last year Cunningham and Cole Sprouse—whose photography is underrated, according to Cunningham—did a fashion shoot on a farm in Chilliwack.
“Forget the fact that it’s Cole Sprouse. It was an amazing experience shooting beside someone that I’ve looked up to for a while in what I’m doing. It was amazing seeing what catches his eye,” said Cunningham.
When it comes to camera gear, Cunningham is very simple. He uses a Canon T6, which was the cheapest he could find. A good photo is more about having a keen eye than having the best gear, said Cunningham.
“If it takes the photos the way I want them to be taken, I don’t care,” said Cunningham. “I think it definitely holds people back when they think they need the craziest, most expensive gear. They really don’t.”
Building a character
Cunningham does not just create characters for his models; he has in some ways also created a character for himself. The made-up name ‘Mescondi’ comes from Cunningham’s admiration for hip-hop artist Kid Cudi, whose last name is ‘Mescudi.’
“Kid Cudi saved my life when I was in university. His music took me out of a dark place and is kind of the reason I decided to pursue art,” said Cunningham.
Mescondi is a bit of an alter ego for Cunningham.
“I’m super into characters, and it’s the successful character of myself,” said Cunningham. “It’s kind of me paying my respects to someone who doesn’t know me, but saved me.”
According to Cunningham, his photography largely speaks to a younger audience that thinks of photography as less of a job and more a form of self-expression and a way to create art. While all his photos adhere to a vibe and dreamy quality that is undoubtedly Mescondi, Cunningham will not shy away from trying new styles.
“I just want to shoot crazier stuff all the time, basically,” said Cunningham. “I see more people shooting in a similar way, which is inevitable. I just want to keep doing different stuff.”