The Impact of Vividness

Monday’s analysis of the photosets from The Cut and New York Magazine reminded me that I have a photoset of my own I’ve been meaning to blog about. In December 2014 my mom and I spontaneously traveled the four and a half hours from Chipley, Florida to New Orleans, Louisiana. My mom brought her Nikon, which I staked claim to for the three days of our trip. At sixteen, I was slowly discovering that popular and famous things sometimes deserved their hype; including ketchup, Beyonce, and New Orleans. However, as a tourist I wasn’t satisfied with only experiencing and capturing the hot spots of the city. I wanted more than Bourbon street and the French Market; I tried to capture otherwise overlooked spaces. Linked is a public Google Drive Folder containing some of my photos from that trip. While reflecting on and picking out my photos for this post, I realized that the photographers included in the New York Magazine gallery may have had similar attitudes in their own work.

Note — this post as a whole has a lot of linked content, mostly photos. Some of these photos may be upsetting, so take the context of the link into account when deciding to click.

To begin, I’d like to bring up the definition of the psychological “vividness effect”: the vividness effect explains how vivid or highly graphic and dramatic events affect an individual’s perception of a situation. A common example is that we are far more likely to stop smoking after seeing someone on TV speaking semi-robotically with a hole in their throat rather than when our doctor or friend gives us pages of peer-reviewed scholarly research strongly concluding that smoking has significant consequences.

As a result, the commercial marketing industry relies heavily on the vividness effect so that the public will remember and acknowledge their product or service. It can also be seen in media and news coverage. The National Geographic’s photo of a starving polar bear went viral even though there is a multitude of accessible research that recognizes the effects of climate change on humans, animals, and abiotic features. Americans paid attention to the crisis in Syria when a shell-shocked, dusty and bloody boy (Omran Daqneesh) was photographed sitting in an ambulance and a drowned toddler (Alan Kurdi) was found washed up on a beach. These photos make the situation more tangible to us than the endless headlines about the economic, political, and military conflict occurring.

Although less spoken of, I believe the vividness effect has a large influence in other types of media we consume, including films and television. How often is a well-known city like Tokyo, NYC, or Los Angeles destroyed in the climax of an action movie? Linked is an article listing the Top Ten Cities Destroyed in Movies. New York City is at the top of the list with The Day After Tomorrow as a main example. Why is this the case? Well firstly, NYC and LA are traditionally popular centers for movie making. But sometimes a production company relies more on CGI than the city itself, or doesn’t even have the budget to film on-site. Destruction of a major city combines elements like a) thousands of screaming people running for safety and b) destruction of popular icons like the Empire State building, Hollywood sign, or the statue of Liberty which allows the scene to become automatically more dramatic and familiar.

The viewer is statistically more likely to have visited NYC than Geneseo, and is certainly more likely to be familiar with NYC, so the producer can tap into that familiarity to receive an emotional response.

The introduction of Superstorm relied on this as well…

  • “Out on Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty—whose newly renovated crown had reopened to visitors just one day before—lost her torchlight and went dark” (p. 9).
  • “the storm sheared away sections of Atlantic City’s iconic boardwalk” (p. 10).
  • “In New London, Connecticut, it pulled the town’s iconic bathhouse from its pilings and left in its place a household stove” (p. 10).

However, one can only consume so much of this before the technique gets old. I’m starting to view it as a cop-out mechanism for directing and production. I personally prefer film and TV about ordinary people in ordinary places because what makes the story interesting is the producer’s ability to describe and depict. A great example is the series Stranger Things, which takes place in the fictional Hawkins, Indiana. The town may be fictional, but it emulates thousands of small towns across the United States. It’s what the Duffer brothers did with this town that made the series so compelling and striking.

This brings me back to my discussion of photography that I began with. The curators of the New York Magazine gallery could have easily picked photos from Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Broadway Street, or Grand Central Station. Instead, they chose photos taken in more overlooked spaces of New York. Or rather, even if the spaces themselves are well-known, the photographs are framed in such a way that a caption is necessary to determine their specific location. But the emotion and destruction of Sandy comes through due to the composition and editing of the photos rather than relying on familiar conceptions. While in no way am I trying to equate myself to Pari Dukovic or Jeff Mermelstein in terms of talent, I believe we may have similar approaches in photography in that we wish to portray a well-known place in a contemporary manner so that any vividness a viewer experiences is due to our artistic choices rather than preconceived notions.

To conclude, while the vividness effect can certainly be constructive and helpful, it is often too heavily relied on. Artists like Spike Lee have mastered the art of combining the familiar and the unfamiliar for peak impact.

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