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The Role of Familiarity in Making a Better Photograph

The Role of Familiarity in Making a Better Photograph

In continuing my discussion on what contributes to making a better photograph, I believe the natural starting point for this post should begin on the red carpet. With the First Monday in May still fresh on my mind, and Cannes in full swing, I would like to examine on our global obsession with celebrities - especially with how their photos are received. I mean, have you ever wondered why so many people like celebrity photos?

Admittedly, I have never been one to be star-struck. And quite frankly, this global obsession has never made sense to me. Clearly, I’ve never regarded celebrity photos with more interest than the next person - being the kind of person who'd rather wait to watch new cinematic releases on long haul flights (as long it's not Star Wars related). So, my opinion towards the famous and how their photos are normally regarded will likely deviate from what’s popularly held.

I suppose part of this attitude can be attributed to my upbringing, having been exposed to a handful of famous people when I was younger. Then later in my early adult life, having lived in New York for many years, spotting celebrities became relatively common that it did little to change my attitude. Yet despite my admission of indifference towards the famous, it doesn’t mean I’m completely oblivious to how celebrities are seen.

Al fresco, at Morandi, in the West Village.

Clueless in photographing food - Peperoni Fritti e Carciofo alla Guidea.

On Charles Street, in the West Village.

Lydia inspecting fake flower on Bleeker Street, in the West Village.

Now with Anna.

In front of Magnolia, made famous by the fictitious television character Carrie Bradshaw, on the once popular program "Sex and the City".

One sees how celebrities are treated, living in the Upper East Side. It's not uncommon to witness them get preferential treatment as they go about their everyday lives – albeit played out with the requisite discretion customarily practiced by New Yorkers. Having said that, it doesn’t stop well-intended local establishments, frequented by celebrities, from namedropping celebrity patronage with autographed photos on their walls.

From my perspective, why celebrities garner more attention than everyone else makes no sense to me. And when you observe them up close, it makes even less sense. Take Steve Martin, for example. Once many years ago at Via Quadronno, I remember catching him eavesdropping on my table immersed in idol gossip. And if you thought this was just an isolated case, I also caught Kate Hudson doing the exact same thing at the exact same spot, a week later.

Celebrities are normal people. I can’t stress that enough. They're just as ordinary as the rest of us. Yet despite this reality, many of us are still glued to them with an inordinate amount of interest. Why is that? The attention celebrities receive is akin to a one-sided relationship, in which an irrational kind of unrequited affection is given to them. I mean, it’s not as if celebrities reciprocate any sign of interest in return.

In the Meat Market District. Image has been edited - right half of image is copied and pasted from another image.

In the Meat Market District. Image has been edited - right half of image is copied and pasted from another image.

In the Meat Market District.

Lydia looking at herself on a side view mirror of a Mack truck. In the Meat Market District.

On the steps of a townhouse, off the Meat Market District.

Now basking in the sun.

Upon making that connection, I began to understand why many of us are generally interested in celebrities. It’s because most of us are commonly exposed to them. After all, we see them day to day on our social media feeds, ranging from impromptu selfies, to paparazzi snaps, to portraits taken by professional. Thus, it’s no wonder why so many of us cannot help but look at celebrities without some sense of familiarity.

As a result, the experience most of us have in seeing a photo of a celebrity is like seeing a photo of someone we know, like a friend, relative, or acquaintance. This happens, because familiarity provides celebrity photos the initial context in making them relatable to us. Without familiarity, why would anyone care enough to look at a celebrity photo. It would be like looking at a photo of someone we don’t know.

Of course, this doesn't mean we don't look at photos of people we don't know. Sometimes, the content of the image capture is strong enough to catch our attention, regardless of familiarity. But let me ask you this. With everything else being equal between two similarly captured photos, which one will get your attention first - the one with someone you know or the one with someone you don't know? In most cases, it's likely the one with someone you know.

Along the Hudson River Promenade, overlooking New Jersey.

Waiting at the stoplight, off the Meat Market.

Crossing the street.

Seated on a bench on Greenwich Avenue.

In front of the Lomography Store.

Now closer up.

Still, why does it matter if an image gets noticed first? It's not as if familiarity makes an image better - because it doesn't in the strictest sense. Speaking objectively, how could it? Familiarity is not a trait that can be graded like a photo's composition, demonstration of skill, and overall effort in execution. Because of that, it cannot make an image capture better. But then, why does it still appear as though it does look better?

How could it not? What may not be immediately obvious to most is just how much of an impact familiarity has in making an image look better than it really is. And, it doesn't matter that it can't be graded. The fact that familiarity catches our attention and gives context to the image will taint our evaluation with bias. In other words, we know the person in the photo, so we're likely going to view the photo with greater interest. Because of that, the photo looks better to us.

Even so, I don't think most of us would ever photograph anyone famous in our lifetime. But, that's not the point of the discussion. Intrinsically, I believe the role of familiarity is particularly material, despite how marginalized its observed in practice. We can see this in the way we share photos of people we don't know, thinking that the people we know might actually be interested. In terms of probability, that assumption is highly suspect.

At an old haunt of mine - Yakitori Taisho, at St. Mark's Place.

Wall mural in the Lower East Side.

More wall murals at the Lower East Side.

In front of graffiti, in the Lower East Side.

Seated at a traffic island, in the Lower East Side.

At the Nudie Jeans Store, in the Lower East Side.

This is not to say that photos of people we don't know are worse than photos of people we know. In terms of composition, demonstration of skill, and overall effort, it might even be better. But in the end, familiarity will usually come out on top. For this reason, professional photographers tend to gravitate towards celebrity portraiture. After all, familiarity will generally guarantee interest in the resulting documentation.

So when you think about it, most of us would prefer looking at photos of your friends and family than photos of anonymous strangers you chanced upon the street. Because of that, doesn't it make sense to take more photos of people you know? Besides, documenting people you know is much less challenging, given the proximity of your relationship to them. The fact they'll let you photograph them already makes for a better picture.

Personally, I believe it's sensible to photograph people you know, given the benefit of familiarity. Because of that, I collaborate with Anna and Lydia. Whether our collaboration actually makes the photo on this blog look better, that's up for debate. But I'd like to believe the readers of this blog appreciate seeing a familiar face, on each and every update. For this reason, I suppose that's why they're both in New York for the week. 

Apparently, I found this popular selfie location off Lafayette Street, pass St. Mark's Place.

Same location, peering into a window.

Outside Strand Bookstore, near Union Square.

Anna having dinner at my old haunt, at the Blue Water Grill, in Union Square.

Lydia, at the Blue Water Grill.

Lydia looking at her social media feed, in a Yellow Cab, on her way back to the hotel. Anna is seated up front, obscured by the bubble partition.

All images have been optimized in Lightroom. None of the images have been cropped. All images shot on the Leica M10 + 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Double Aspherical.

Sorry for the late post. I've been busy with work. 

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