Photographing Heirlooms: Guest Blog by Shana Novak

My grandmother, Phyllis, was the keeper of the family history. She kept a neatly organized closet packed with boxes of fine china, silver table settings, war medals, and so on. She had a fascinating story for every object. Her stories brought the objects to life again.

I am a still life photographer by trade so I am naturally inclined to tell stories through pictures. I began a personal project photographing my family's heirlooms as way to keep their tales alive beyond the actual object, which I knew would eventually be lost in the shuffle of time. Every family has objects and artifacts with fascinating stories. Photographing them is a wonderful tool for sharing the stories that embrace who we are. Even after objects are donated, moved to storage, or discarded, the stories and memories remain. 

A family recently came to me with a box they found in a closet. Their father had passed away and it was time to clean out his home. The box contained his favorite hat and his pocket knife. Photographing these objects was a fun way to preserve the memories and, in the end, it was much easier for the family to donate the box of his personal items.

Downsizing, de-cluttering, and the fragile conditions of personal belongings are common challenges many people face with their "stuff". Meaningful objects are often stored in trunks and old boxes for years. The specialness of those items remains silent and they occupy valuable space in attics and basements. Getting the objects out of the box and photographing them means giving these items a new kind of energy. One of my upcoming assignments is to photograph valuable baseball cards that have been stored in a safety deposit box for 40 years.

The idea that special objects don't really do anyone any good in a box is something I see often when photographing heirlooms. Taking a look at family belongings from a fine art perspective can be fun and light and a great way to shift meaning away from the object and over to the proud history that object represents. For example, Deb Baum and her sister Becca joke that they have a healthy sibling rivalry surrounding who will inherit their late mother's Lenox china dinnerware. The dinnerware symbolizes happy family times and joyful meals. They grew up in Omaha, NE and the china is stored there in their father's house. Deb now lives in Maryland and Becca, in Chicago. So Deb had a 3ft x 3ft portrait made of one of the dinner plates for her dining room in Baltimore. She also had a print made as her sister's birthday gift. Now, the good memories are present in their everyday lives. The sisters experience that happiness and those memories every day.

My belief is that celebrating great family memories is the fun part while storage bins and downsizing are the reality. Family heirlooms can't always be present in our lives, but by photographing them, their spirits can.

Guest Blogger Shana Novak is Founder of The Heirloomist.

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