Reel Estate

‘The Photograph’ tells a love story, but the movie's real obsession is NYC real estate porn

By Kelly Kreth  |
February 26, 2020 - 1:00PM

"The Photograph" stars Issa Rae—and loses focus when it comes to depicting how New Yorkers live.


“The Photograph” is a new movie from Universal starring Issa Rae as Mae Morton, an assistant museum curator who lives in New York City and works at the Queens Museum. After the sudden death of her mother—a photographer who was more engaged with work than family—Mae finds some old photographs in a safety deposit box along with two letters from her mother. This leads Mae on a journey to find out about her enigmatic mother’s past and eventually curate a retrospective of her mother’s work.

If only the movie’s depiction of NYC real estate was as focused on a truthful representation.

[Editor's note: When a movie or TV show is set in New York City—and if the people making it are savvy—real estate becomes part of the story itself. In Reel Estate, Brick Underground reality checks the NYC real estate depicted on screen].

Journalist Michael Block (played by LaKeith Stanfield) is on a journey similar to Mae’s. When working on a story in Louisiana, he meets a man named Isaac who tells him about the proverbial “one that got away”— none other than Mae’s mother, Christina Eames. Curious about the woman behind the photograph Issac shares with him and eager to sell a story about it, Michael returns to NYC and seeks out Mae. The two meet and their chemistry is instant. The story of their budding romance is juxtaposed with flashbacks of Christina and Isaac’s relationship.

The movie takes us to the places where Mae and Michael work—Michael is employed by “The Republic” a magazine in Midtown. His glass-walled office is on the mark for a large publication, as is Mae’s workplace at the Queens Museum. (Some scenes were actually filmed on location in the museum, according to IMDB.)

Not how NYers live

But the movie stumbles in showing how New Yorkers live. Mae has a fancy kitchen with high-end appliances, including a cappuccino maker that likely costs nearly four figures and a large, marble island. It’s hard to imagine someone able to afford all of this on an assistant curator salary.

After a quick glance at the Mae’s high ceilings and marble everything, reality goes out the (floor-to-ceiling) windows and the real estate fantasy deepens.

During a rogue hurricane that strikes NYC, Mae invites Michael over to her apartment and we get a better look inside. Not only is the kitchen straight out of “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” the rest of the Downtown loft is something that could easily be highlighted in “Architectural Digest.” There’s no IKEA or CB2 furniture anywhere. Instead, there’s works of art, expensive furniture, and space, lots of glorious space! Needless to say, it would be unusual for a 30-something-year-old working in the arts in NYC in 2020 to live like this.

A grand downtown loft like hers (here’s a similar one) could easily rent for five figures per month or sell for millions.

In fact, the apartment featured seems far better suited to belong to a successful actress and recent Forbes “30 Under 30” pick like Issa Rae instead of the character she plays. While Rae recently purchased a sweet pad in Los Angeles and worked with a top interior designer to get it as picture perfect as fictional Mae’s, it seems delusional to think an assistant curator could do the same.

Mae’s family history

It doesn’t seem likely that Mae had any help buying such luxe property. Her mother was of modest means and struggled to make a name for herself. We get glimpses of her mother’s first three months in NYC in a shabby NYC apartment. Nothing of any value is left in her deposit box and she appeared to be less interested in material things and far more focused on pouring her energy into making art. And there are no references to the man who raised Mae having money.

But perhaps the biggest shock is Michael’s reaction to Mae’s apartment. All he says is, “nice apartment.” One would expect at least an “OMG!”

While we never see Michael’s own apartment, his lifestyle doesn’t seem to fit either. He is seen wearing $900 Fear of God sneakers—an extravagant statement for a writer who doesn’t even cover fashion.

When the hurricane intensifies, Mae and Michael head Uptown to the safety of Michael’s brother Kyle’s brownstone—and it’s another over-the-top residence in a movie that doesn’t seem to know it is masquerading as luxury real estate porn.

In effect, the real estate choices for this movie are so baffling and disconnected from the plot they distract from the duo’s steamy romance. The snapshot of new love in “The Photograph” would have been far more effective without all the showy props and glammed-up sets.



Kelly Kreth

Contributing writer

Contributing writer Kelly Kreth has been a freelance journalist, essayist, and columnist for more than two decades. Her real estate articles have appeared in The Real Deal, Luxury Listings, Our Town, and amNewYork. A long-time New York City renter who loves a good deal, Kreth currently lives in a coveted rent-stabilized apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side.

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