Nostalgia — that delicate but unbreakable string that tugs at our hearts and memories. It makes us remember our childhood homes, our favorite hobbies or those countless unseen moments that thread together the major ones. The Heirloomist‘s Shana Novak, a photographer with a background in high fashion magazines like W magazine, has found a way to respectfully capture the items that mean the most to us by photographing them with the same intensity and detail that, say, a portrait photographer might focus on a subject. Whether they’re mundane everyday things we take for granted or those most treasured — from combat boots and life-saving blue jeans to chewed up No. 2 pencils — they all get their spotlight moment with The Heirloomist. Here, Novak tells us more about The Heirloomist and why preserving these memories is so important.
My grandmother. She was the keeper of our family’s heirlooms. At 90 years old she remembered every fascinating, sometimes humorous story for every object. This gave me a sense of where I came from. As a professional photographer, my instinct was to celebrate that with photographs. The idea evolved into making photographs for others because I believe that no matter how odd or strange or boring or thrilling your heritage is, it deserves to be celebrated.
The first thing I photographed…
My grandmother’s silver table settings. The photo really seemed to bring her joy so that’s where the broader idea of the Heirloomist took root. The memories, traditions and heritage that heirlooms represent make them personal treasures. I believe they should be celebrated to the fullest extent–and as fine art–so capturing them at a larger scale seemed fitting.
What is it about the mundane everyday items that have such nostalgic importance…
I truly believe in that saying “it’s the little things in life.” The things we surround ourselves with will be there for our defining moments. One of our early clients, for example, brought us a pair of jeans that her husband was wearing one night in college when a fire broke out. Those jeans ended up saving him from being badly burned. She gave him a huge print of the jeans for his 40th birthday — celebrating the simple joy of his being around to get old!
There are lots of strobe lights and camera equipment in the studio, but the object is star. The process of photographing an heirloom is a lot about the right angle and light. I want the object to look heroic so I spend some time getting to know it before really digging in. With stuffed animals, for example, I have to be very careful about getting the expression in their face just right. Once we get the object photographed, we send a proof off to the client and upon approval, begin the process of making the enlarged print.
When I hear my clients tell their story, I’m thinking…
My mind starts churning immediately over the best way to gloriously bring their object to life. Their stories and memories are always touching and to me, memories are sacred. I approach memories with a the utmost respect so I click into overdrive right away.
The story that sticks out most is definitely ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff’s combat boots from Iraq. He was wearing them when he was nearly killed by a roadside bomb while reporting on the war. The boots were sent back to his wife in a plastic bag at a time when she didn’t know if he would ever recover. Bob made a miraculous recovery. But for 10 years, his wife, Lee, couldn’t even touch the plastic bag, which was buried in the garage somewhere. On the 10th anniversary of his injuries and recovery, she found the courage to go out to the garage and get the boots and had me photograph them as a gift to Bob. When I got them to my studio, it was clear right away that they were just so powerful. The boots were still caked in Iraqi soil and had blood on them. They spoke volumes on war, bravery and recovery. To this day the boots are the perfect example of what The Heirloomist is trying to do…to say the things that really matter about where we have come from and who we are today.
Most random item I photographed…
In 1984, my grandmother was hit by a golf cart while golfing in Palm Springs. She broke her leg and had metal plates and screws in her ankle for years. They had been removed at some point because about 5 years ago, I found them in a Ziplock bag in her closet. This is just so hilarious to me and typical of her… of course she kept them. I just had to document them.
Things I’ve photographed from my own family…
My father’s family had a real estate business for 70 years in Omaha, where I grew up. Sometime in the late 1970s, my dad had matching jackets made for employees with the “Novak and Sons” logo embroidered across the back. He gave it to me to photograph a few years back and it instantly became a favorite — it symbolizes all the years of hard work my family did to provide for me and for each other.
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