Cut, warped and distorted: Conor Cunningham discovers a new approach to photography thanks to lockdown
The Canadian photographer has adapted to a fair few changes over the last year, most notably in using FaceTime to shoot the likes of Kim K, Mowalola and Lil Nas X.
When Conor Cunningham picks up the phone I can hear the sounds of what resembles a cafetière brewing in the background; he’s only just starting his day in Vancouver, meanwhile mine is drawing to an early, dark close in the peak of English winter. A few cigs are puffed on the other line as we begin to discuss the weirdly busy week that the Canadian photographer’s had so far. Not only has he recently released a commission for The Face, looking at the future of fashion and its new roster of talent, he’s also photographed the likes of American rapper Lil Nas X and Kim K, to name a few. The busyness is a relief no less, considering the current circumstances. But there’s been a slight change as to how he’s approached his busy calendar; every single shoot over the last year has been shot over FaceTime. “It’s been this super weird process,” he tells It’s Nice That.
Conor, who also goes by the artist name of Mescondi – a title taken from his old Kid Cudi-inspired username on Tumblr – was never an overtly creative kid. Nor would he have referred to himself as a “gifted artist”. Instead, he was an avid devotee of film and television, and spent most of his childhood obsessing over what was on the screen. “My parents let me watch more than just the kid stuff, they let me watch the movies that I was interested in,” he reminisces, which enabled him to develop an understanding of colour from an early age. He also fondly recalls trips spent with his father, taking pictures along the way and thus forming his first introduction to the medium of photography. Although it’s worth noting he never took this seriously at the time.
It wasn’t until five-ish years ago – “almost six years ago now” – when leaving school, that Conor started going on long walks with one of his friends, talking about the future and its uncertainties. “We’d just walk around downtown for eight hours at a time. We were both into fashion, and he started bringing his dad’s camera, just for fun. He used to take my picture and photograph my outfits, which we thought were really cool. But they’re pretty bad, looking back.” Then, one day, Conor felt he could do it better and asked if he could switch roles, resultantly taking pictures of his friend instead. “I immediately fell in love with it,” he adds. And dropped out of his degree in health sciences to focus entirely on this new adoration: photography.
Ever since this defining moment, Conor’s been building on his practice “nonstop”. He’s worked hard to get to where he is today, all in all, nurturing a style that’s characteristically his own – and one that’s influenced heavily by cartoons and horror films like The Shining. “I think when you’re starting out it’s really important to develop a style that you don’t waver from too much. It’s good to experiment of course, but I think when it comes to the work you’re presenting to the world, it’s good to have a look that you’re confident with.”
To this day, Conor’s body of work features a wide mix of fashion photography and branding, the type that artfully combs photography with his interests in clothing, styling and film. When working on a shoot, he’ll begin with the storyline before making moves on the colour scheme and props he wants to employ. “Then I set the whole thing up,” he says, noting how he’s only recently started working with producers and production teams. Brainstorming, however, is key, and he’ll try his best to devise something that he’s never seen before. But this customary way of working, as mentioned, has been altered in a seismic manner; as now, Conor primarily (and perhaps temporarily) shoots on FaceTime.
“Having to shoot remotely – for, I would say, 90 per cent of the stuff I’ve been doing in the last year – has been quite limiting on set,” he adds on the matter. “Most of the things I shoot are either in somebody’s house or in a studio, depending on if it’s a company or an individual, with a light set up against a white background. I have to take all of that and make it super different every time.” On a typical shoot, Conor places emphasis on experimentation and crafting something original, so you can understand his frustration with this newfound process. His answer to this problem, though, rests in the edit. “I never used to do so much post-production, and there was a lot more planning and set design prior to the shoot.” But since the impact of Covid-19, this has shifted dramatically – “there’s a lot of coming up with stuff on the fly.”
FaceTime, he says, is similar to the usual shooting process yet much more simplified. Largely set up like a normal studio shoot, there tends to be a full team on the other end of the call. Conor will also have assistants, which makes things a lot easier, but naturally there are a few limitations – mostly when it comes to communication. “Usually, at least when I started, a lot of [the process] was having to explain to the model everything that I wanted to do, getting them to move the phone around and go back and pose.” His subjects also tend to have their own single ring light set-up, which helps to pull the silhouette away from the backdrop and give off as many crisp lines as possible in the edit.”
An imperative part of the process is Conor’s cut-and-paste method, which situates the models in a new environment or background. “It’s definitely weird at first, but I think it's just about being personable and letting the model know that everyone thinks this is a weird situation,” he speaks of the general method behind it all. “You’ve just got to break down some walls and then people will treat it more like a regular shoot, especially if they’ve been able to see what I’ve done before with it. They’re like: ‘Oh okay, it’s not going to look like my friend took an iPhone photo in my living room, it’s going to look like an actual shoot’.”
Of his most recent endeavours, Conor was asked to photograph Kim Kardashian for the launch of her Skim’s clothing line. It wasn’t too long after the pandemic first hit, and the team reached out to see if he could make it to LA in a week. Without a work visa for the US, he foresaw a problem which wasn’t helped by the near-global lockdown. Deciding not to take any risks, Conor suggested a shoot over FaceTime, and a little while later (and after what seemed a few ifs and buts) the client went for it. “She was really good – I was shocked, honestly, and she was super nice and easy to work with,” says Conor on what it was like to photograph the social media superstar who famously broke the internet. “I don’t know why, I just didn’t expect it to be like that. I guess they run such a huge ship, they have to be so on the bar about everything. Out of any client I’ve worked with, they were definitely the easiest to work with and the most accommodating.”
Working in his characteristic warped and collaged style, the primary demand from the client was a simple white background, placing the bodysuits and model as the focal point. Other than that, Conor had the chance to add his own flair to it. There are some trippy features on display – like the miniature Kim standing in-between her posed larger self – but this is quite a minimal counterpart to the maximalism of Conor’s wider portfolio. For instance, the campaign he shot before this for fashion designer Mowalola Ogunlesi.
This project, launched last October, marked his biggest shoot to date and the photographer was more than excited about the job: “I love the clothes and I love her; I think she’s such a cool person,” he says. “I woke up one day, and she had just DM’d me and was like, ‘where are you located? I want to shoot’.” Conor freaked out, and the worry of travel restrictions (and thus another FaceTime shoot) soon kicked in. As luck had it, however, a friend and model of Mowalola’s was located in Toronto, and they were able to fly out to Conor in Vancouver and work together in person. A collaborative process entirely, both Conor and Mowalola bounced ideas together and landed on bright colours, surreal references and duplications of the model interacting with themselves as key traits of the shoot.
Even if the pandemic is what catapulted many – if not most – photographers to use FaceTime, Conor always had an inkling that the industry was heading for a rebirth of the 2000’s digital aesthetic. It’s a trend that he predicted a while ago, perhaps triggered by an increasing sense of nostalgia over recent months. “I just think there’s a lot more freedom, and I think, especially after such a grim year, people are really going to be seeking more bright, colourful, fun and creative ideas,” he adds. “And a lot of that is easier to produce when working digitally – I only work with digital, I can’t do film.”
So will FaceTime become a more permanent methodology for Conor, and for photographers around the globe? Seeing as he’s just shot a video for American hip hop group Brockhampton, who he’s wanted to work with for some time, and also has plans to work with Nike, Diesel and a jewellery company based in New York, we’re left to wonder as to whether or not the photographer will decide, or need, to use the iPhone’s video calling app for any more of his future shoots. One thing’s for sure, however, is that Conor is ready to adapt to any circumstance, especially when it comes to utilising new media to his advantage. “I’ve gotten quite comfortable with it now.”
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.