What Are Heirloom Portraits and How Can you Create Them for Your Family?
When it comes to preserving family history, where do you start? If you’re asking yourself this question as you stare at boxes of old family photos, stacks of love letters and piles of dusty documents, you’re not alone! The idea of recording your family history can be a bit overwhelming, even if you’re an experienced genealogist. To keep things fun and manageable, we recommend starting with objects. Yep, that’s right –objects! Objects aren’t just dusty artifacts or kitschy collectibles. They’re priceless heirlooms that trigger family stories. That’s why we’re passionate about heirloom portraits. So, what are heirloom portraits and how can you create them for your family?
By photographing and recording the stories of a few family heirlooms, you can create a beautiful piece of art and allow others to appreciate important items that might be otherwise hidden in a basement or attic.
Below is our simple guide to Heirloom Portraiture, the art of documenting stories using heirlooms and then styling and photographing them beautifully.
As professional photographers and interviewers, we have a special interest in storytelling through images and words. In 2011, my friend Jamie founded StoryKeep. She and her team produce feature films and signature books for families. I’m a professional prop stylist and photographer of family heirlooms. Together, Jamie and I partnered to create Heirloom Portraits. We hope our 6 tips for Heirloom Portraiture inspires and guides you as you preserve family history for future generations. And please reach out with any questions you may have!
Heirloom Portraits: A Simple How–To Guide for You and Your Family
- Select your Objects:
To begin, select a family heirloom – silver engraved spoons, a quilt, or box of tools. These objects will provide you with tangible triggers that help you delve into family memories. Instead of looking at an entire lifetime, offer your storyteller a manageable piece of the puzzle. Look around – what speaks to you? No matter the intent or origin of the heirloom, each will reveal something about your family.
- Draw out Stories:
Whether you are writing the story or recording your family member via audio or video, pick a quiet location where you won’t be interrupted. Be mindful of how little future generations may know about the family. Most likely, your storyteller will begin speaking in shorthand, and you will know parts of the story already. Take the time to explain the purpose of the project and how you would like to “get the whole story.” Be prepared to ask questions that you already know the answer to! This will create a much more valuable document going forward.
- Keep the Conversation Going:
Listen closely. Most of your questions and prompts during an interview come down to hearing what someone is really saying. Look your storyteller in the eye and stick to the good stuff. Ask about the topics that interest you most. If your storyteller wavers off the topic you want to get on tape, gently steer the conversation back to the main topic. You can usually get someone to continue talking by simply saying, “Oh, really, could you tell me more about that?”
- Style Props:
Once you understand an object’s significance to your family legacy, you can tell the story through a photo. Prop styling includes arranging a still life, choosing colors, composition, and surfaces. Do you want your object to stand out from the background or be more monochromatic? If the image reflects part of your relative’s personality, should the overall feel be structured, calm, or playful?
You may want to include supporting objects, or some modern elements for contrast. Combine multiple items from an ancestor’s collection: vintage photos, old letters, or three-dimensional keepsakes. A few little extras like a layer of fabric, jewelry, or a corner of a vintage document, can contribute to a compelling composition.
- Light the Object:
For a simple, natural light setup (you can create this at home without lots of equipment), arrange your shot close to a window. Pay attention to how the light affects the texture of your subject. Sweeping light from the side will accentuate the surface, such as with these spoons from Veronica’s grandmother. If you prefer a brighter shot with less contrast, use white posters or foam board (found at any craft store) on the opposite side to fill light back into the shadows.
- Connect the Story and Photo:
There are so many ways to connect your stories and photos. You could simply print a version of the story and paste it on the back of a framed portrait, or go bigger and create a video or multimedia slideshow to share at a reunion. Veronica created an exhibit showing her images and physical heirlooms, along with interviews excerpts. No matter the end product, sharing the photographs and history with family members will elicit more stories, and create more meaningful connections between generations.
About the Authors:
Jamie Patrice Yuenger is a professional interviewer and host. She founded and owns StoryKeep, a New York based production company that creates feature films and heirloom books for families who want to capture life stories and histories. Jamie earned her BA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied Scandinavian Studies, folklore, and Women’s Studies. While in college, she worked as an assistant folklorist at the Wisconsin Arts Board for three years where she conducted fieldwork with esteemed Wisconsin folk artists. In 2006, Jamie moved to New York City and began editing radio and video documentaries for City Lore‘s City of Memory project. She later studied radio production at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, after which she was hired as an assistant producer at WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate. Jamie was a founding co-host of Brooklyn’s daily TV show, BK Live, in 2013. When not in conversation, she practices yoga, reads memoirs and listens to her husband play guitar. You can follow along with Jamie’s storytelling journeys on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Veronica Olson is a professional photographer and prop stylist, specializing in commercial still life. She studied photography at Brigham Young University, where she received her BFA, and multiple talent awards and scholarships. Her final solo show was a series of photos and interviews on family collections, which ignited her interest in visually documenting family history, both for herself and others. After moving to New York in 2013, Veronica launched her freelance career, quickly expanding her portfolio and working with clients such as Food52, Gracious Home, American Girl, and Williams Sonoma. Combining art, shopping, and travelling for a living, she thinks she’s lucked out with the best job in the world. Her personal projects still revolve around vintage objects and researching family stories. Some of that work can be seen on her website and via Instagram.