The Instagrammer to Follow If You Love Optical Illusions

All images courtesy of Stephen McMennamy

All images courtesy of Stephen McMennamy

One of the coolest outcomes of social media's popularity has been watching artists experiment with various platforms as the global galleries for their work. The latest example is Stephen McMennamy, who uses Instagram as a creative outlet for the playful and poignant photo mashups he's been creating for the past year and a half. As the father of two kids and the creative director of BBDO Atlanta, he doesn't exactly have time to work the gallery circuit in order to find a home for his excellent optical illusions. But in 2015, all you need is the right app or two and the world is your audience. McMennamy's visual mashups have earned him over 45,000 followers on Instragram, fans who appreciate the 100 #combophotos he's crafted from original photos he's taken. 

We've also become fans of McMennamy's work, so we asked him a bit about his creative process. 

Where did the idea for the #combophoto series come from?

I guess the short answer would have to be, I came to it out of boredom. I was just mulling through photos on my phone, specifically pictures of my daughter from her 4th birthday — there was a photo of her with a big smile on her face and another photo of a pink balloon. During that moment of boredom I took both photos into an app called PicFrame (a photo collage app) and I just started to mess with what was there.

I don’t think my intention was to merge the two, but that’s exactly what ended up happening. The image of my daughter and the balloon definitely got me thinking in the combophoto direction, but my first concerted effort (that falls more in line with what I’m doing now), was of a banana and the empire state building. I just so happened to have those two things in front of me at the same time, I did the edit on the spot, and it instantly got me wondering what else was out there that I could experiment with.

But well before all that happened I had really become enamored with Instagram. There’s an endless amount of creativity to be discovered on that app. I saw a lot of people expressing themselves in so many unique ways. I’ve always wanted a more pronounced voice when it comes to my own creativity and I feel like that app has given me the voice I’d been looking for.   

In each case did you take both photos, or did you mix stock photos with your own?

Yes, I take all the photos. except for one instance, which was a collaboration with me and another Instagrammer (@asenseofhuber). He had taken a photo of one of his turtles which sparked an idea. We connected and ended up creating this and this. He provided the turtle and I shot and edited two top half options. He preferred the watermelon and I clearly preferred the helmet. I like the idea of collaborations, but it’s hard when you have to give up control. But again, never stock. I shoot it all and that can be a real pain in the ass. I have a full time job, so I don’t really have time to run all over creation hunting down all these odd props I need. 

What's your favorite mashup?

My favorites are constantly changing. Sometimes I’ll revisit one of my early ones and I’ll be reminded of what the process was like, what I learned, etc. and I’ll end up with a nostalgic fondness … but then I have some I really like that haven’t been published or some in my head that I'm excited about. When you have so many of these, it’s hard to have a favorite.

Was there one photo that ended up making a statement bigger than the artistry involved? (I'm thinking of the factory cigarette, for example). 

The factory + cigarette is a good one. I’d lump the french fries + cigarettes in with that one too. Truthfully a lot of the exaggerated scale food imagery makes a bit of a statement around our love of huge portions, lack of moderation. By no means am trying to make a heavy handed statement about that particular issue, but I will say, I’m very conscious of that fact.     

What elements do you look for in considering what to combine and how to match the images?

When I’m blending objects, I primarily look for consistency (color, texture, shape). In other (non matching) situations, a contrasting juxtaposition is really important. 

How has your work in the ad world informed your personal artistic work?

I think it would be fair to say my ad sensibility is heavily focused on visual solutions or visual storytelling. I prefer print or video [pieces] that tell simple, easy to digest stories. In the case of combophotos I’m not solving a messaging problem, but these photos definitely have a riddle like quality. It’s just me trying to solve a problem in my head. I’m trying to answer the question, "How can I make this work?" "How can i get these two disparate objects to live in harmony together as one image?" Also, I’ve taken on more of a management role in my current job. I miss getting my hands dirty in the “making of” process inherent in advertising. I still definitely get to flex my creative muscles, but I miss the making of the creative idea. Combophotos have definitely satisfied that desire to create. 

Will there be a show of these pieces anywhere, or do you create them mainly for social media?

I love that you ask that. Unfortunately I wouldn’t know how to do a show. I live on a cul-de-sac with my wife and two kids. I know how to walk my girls to school every day and go to work. So I guess for now, it’s just a hobby that’s gotten some traction on social media. Eventually I’d love to do more with it, but for now, it simply serves as good exercise for my brain.

Have you created any other series that work with the concepts of artistic illusions or visual puns? 

I’ve done a little bit of that. here are a few examples.

a drawing on glass… 


I did an series of drawing over warning signs (it’s buried deep in my Instagram feed). Here are a few examples of that…

[Wet Floor sign] [Wet Floor sign 2]

Rubber bands that look like pasta

a pepper

I murdered Mr. Peanut

a razor shaving a toy

What else are you working on now, both professionally and in your personal portfolio?

I’m just continuing to make ads and continuing to make combophotos. 

Follow Stephen McMennamy on Instagram @smcmennamy