On January 3rd, just a toe step into 2017, the New York Times Magazine ran an article by the English writer Geoff Dyer entitled, “The Mysteries of Our Family Snapshots.” The article was illustrated with a red, blue, and green-popping 1960s family photo. Mr. Dyer caught my attention with this sentence:
When my dad died five months later, I became both the only surviving person from the picture and the only person who might know anything about it.
He described precisely the predicament that spurs so many people to knock on StoryKeep’s door.
In that moment, I recalled sitting in a kitchen with a woman during our first client visit, and she blurted out, “I seriously have trouble sleeping at night, Jamie. I know it’s crazy, but I wake up thinking about these dusty boxes of photos. I’m the only one who knows anything about them.”
I’ve often wondered how it can be possible for something so amateur as a family snapshot to be so powerful. Take a look at some of your family photos – but not the professional ones in shiny frames. Root around for a shoebox filled with photos. Pull a few from the top. You’ll notice that they contain objects (your orange/brown sweater from high school), places (the pink dining room!) and moments (your fifth birthday party) so important to your inner being that merely looking at them stops time.
Dyer writes about his mom’s gesture in the photo: “My mum is covering up her right wrist with her left hand to hide a birthmark. She always did that. That gesture defined her.”
I believe it is the lack of curation, the relatively haphazard “snap,” of our family snapshots that provides some answers to our personal mysteries. In them, we see furniture, toys, old TV sets that were around in our childhood homes, people who stopped by, our parents and siblings in their “natural states.” This is why I adore family snapshots, why I take pleasure in weaving them into a family’s film. They remind you of what you forgot.
Adding these quiet mysteries of family photos to a professional film…oh, bless me. That’s like mixing and matching a sharp fashion piece with a vintage item. Such an outfit shows your personal style. It’s like serving a perfect martini alongside a stack of Triscuits. That’s just fun. That’s something you can dig into.
As we age, we appreciate family photos in new ways. Dyer notes what the poet George Oppen once said about aging: “What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.”
As you move into another year, your family photos will come with you. How can you expand and pass on their meaning?
Many families we work with want to capture somebody later in life. Kelly, on the other hand, wanted StoryKeep to help capture a moment in her daughter’s life and her reflections on being “Ivy’s mom.”
So for one year, StoryKeep gave Kelly ideas for recording the little moments in Ivy’s life – bathtime, reading together, playing with friends – as she grew from a bouncy toddler into a little girl. (We loaned Kelly a professional audio recorder for this.) Listening back over the recordings, Kelly was amazed by how much Ivy’s voice changed in just half a year.
A single mother by choice, Kelly also wanted to make sure that Ivy would always be able to listen to her mom’s voice. If Ivy ever wondered, “What was my birth story?” or “What was it like when I was little?” she would have these recordings. With this in mind, we periodically recorded Kelly’s thoughts and stories about motherhood.
This is a 5-minute snippet (approved by Kelly, of course) of the two 45-minute audio pieces we produced together. As you listen to it, consider the precious people in your life. Now’s the time to capture their fleeting moments and memories. Your StoryKeep project would make the ultimate graduation, birthday, or Mother’s Day gift.
We’re kicking off 2016 with a new video series about the excitement and joy of capturing family stories.
Each bite-sized clip features StoryKeep founder Jamie Yuenger sharing a personal story or an experience working with a family. (Learn more about Jamie.)
Today’s episode, “Peach Slurping,” is about a silly game Jamie played with her younger brother, Jake, when they were kids.
What silly games did you play as a kid? Share your story in the comments section, or on our Facebook page. We look forward to hearing them.
People ask me all the time, “How did you come up with the idea for StoryKeep?”.
They usually lean in and repeat it as a question.
Lou Zandoli is an ornery guy. His parents were from Italy. When he finds himself at his son and daughter-in-law’s house in Brooklyn, New York, he peels cups and cups of fresh garlic and puts the unclothed cloves in Ball jars that he stashes in their freezer. He’s got a gold grill (yes, a teeth grill!). And he is the man who changed everything for me.
When I met Lou, I had gone to school at the Salt Institute for documentary radio production (think This American Life, Studio 360, human interest stories). Following that, I had landed a much envied internship at WNYC, an NPR affiliate in New York City. I was later hired as an Assistant Producer. But, after spending obscene amounts of money on radio school and supporting a radio career dream, I realized I was unhappy. The whole radio station, journalism thing wasn’t doing it for me.
Around that time, a dear friend of mine named Nicole and I went out for lunch. Afterward, as I was pulling over to drop her at her door, she asked me whether I would entertain the idea of recording her father-in-law’s life story, Lou’s story. She wanted to capture his fascinating history so her children could appreciate what he had lived through and done with his life. “He’s got a memory like a steel-trap,” she said.
The idea felt like warm jelly in my chest.
We came to a mutual sum. I started within a week’s time.
I conducted nine or ten interviews with Lou. He told me about the Depression. He told me about his childhood in Queens, New York. He told me about his military career. He told me grand tales about the Mohawks Athletic Club. He recalled his two children’s births, and later on, his present work in China.
I think it was the third recording session when it hit me. Something called out to me.
“This is your life’s work.”
It was the telling, the listening, the collecting, the archiving, the sharing, the heirloom-making. It all made sense to me, and everything in my body said, “Now is the time.”
That was in March of 2010. By April of 2011, I had founded StoryKeep.
That is the story of StoryKeep. At least the beginning.
This post is part of the blog series StoryKeep Spotlights, where we highlight incredible companies doing good work in associated fields.
On a misty March morning, I boarded a north-bound train. The ice had finally melted. A few buds were greening the trees. Finally – StoryKeep’s first spring field trip!
By 10AM, I was clear out of Manhattan. My train was chugging along nicely as I leisurely looked over the Hudson River. Four weeks prior, during a phone conversation with archivist Janine St. Germain, I learned of Hudson Archival, an esteemed preservation and archiving firm. Janine sang their praises, “They’re the best, simply the best.” If Janine was impressed by a shop’s abilities, I had to see the operation with my own eyes.
Toya Dubin greeted me at the train station. Her piercing brown eyes and smartly pinned french twist told me immediately that she was the boss. The drive from Rhinecliff to Port Ewen was about twenty minutes, and as her vehicle hugged the winding roads, I listened in awe as she laid out the bullet points of her family’s business legacy.
“My grandfather, Oscar Fisher, founded the Oscar Fisher Company in the 1940’s. He made development equipment for the microfilm industry. My father, Stephen Fisher, began working with his father in the 1950’s, and eventually founded his own microfilming company in the 1970’s. In 2002, I joined Hudson to become the third generation and brought a digital sensibility to our work for museums, archives, and libraries. A family legacy of attention to detail, responsiveness to our clients, and insistence on quality are what you will encounter in working with Hudson Archival.”
She said it just like that, in fluid lines, full-steam ahead.
We turned into the driveway and approached their 25,000 square foot office facility. I must admit, situated on a dramatic ridge, it looked a bit like a large ski lodge from the 1970s. As I entered the building, I was greeted by a retro peg board displaying StoryKeep, my full name and the day’s date (see photo above). My first thought? “They spelled my last name correctly.” I quickly learned that such a detail was merely Hudson Archival speaking in its mother tongue.
“We run first and second quality control checks on every single image in an effort to prevent errors whenever possible,” Toya said as she ushered me into their quiet, low-lights facility. In the center of a their main work floor, and elevated on wooden palates, stood hundreds of boxes. Photographs, newsletters, maps, blueprints, etchings, and a thousand other elements of our visual human history were waiting to be preserved, digitized and cataloged according to exacting standards.
As we walked around, I ducked into several work spaces, each one divided by heavy velvet curtains. In one, a middle-aged man carefully transferred a 3′ x 12′ architectural drawing onto an extremely large pneumatic table. He pressed a foot pedal and a clean glass top pressed down evenly on the old drawing. Then, with the click of a mouse, he captured a high-res image of the masterpiece. In another space, a young woman wearing funky framed glasses worked diligently through one of the largest book archiving projects in known history. She turned each page of the foreign-language book with care, capturing a literary history that might otherwise be lost due to weather or conflict.
The day was broken up by a catered lunch on the second floor. I passed out a few StoryKeep catalogs so the staff joining us for lunch could get a sense for how our two companies might work together on family history projects. At least one of the staff had worked with Toya’s father, Stephen, and made the transition from second generation leadership to third.
Satiated, I finished up my field trip with the Director of Digital Services, Michael Macauley. Once a student of museum studies and art history, Michael now supervises 12 staff and, among other things, helps large clients set up their own bespoke websites that digitally catalog and make accessible their massive collections.
At the close of the day, Toya asked Jerry O’Toole, her very capable Operations Manager, to drive me to the Rhinecliff train station. When we arrived, I told Jerry that it was very nice meeting him (he shared a number of excellent free audible book sources with me during our drive). He got out of the car and told me that Toya insisted he walk me down to the correct platform. “All the way,” he said, “Toya said, ‘All the way.’ ” I looked at his face and saw that he was genuinely smiling. This was a man who well represented his legacy-based employer. All the way is exactly how it seems Hudson Archival does it.
StoryKeep seeks Hudson Archival in our efforts to expertly digitize family media collections.
Gotham Gigs: Story collector uses audio and film
By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
Jamie Yuenger believes that stories—like the lives, dreams and histories they depict—are irreplaceable. “Think of them as heirlooms,” she said. Something to be preserved. Cherished. Passed down.
A former documentary film editor and radio producer, Ms. Yuenger, 29, co-founded StoryKeep last April. Through long-form interviews—and with audio, film and other media—she crafts intimate portraits of individuals, families and companies for her clients that can be seen, heard and felt.
“We all have a legacy,” said Ms. Yuenger, who lives in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace and works out of an office near Park Slope. “We all have important stories to tell.”
As Ms. Yuenger has discovered, that story can be the long and textured life of a friend’s 85-year-old father-in-law. Or a family trip to Norway and Denmark taken 50 years ago. Or the creation of a successful small business.
Ms. Yuenger said she revels in the company of strangers. Recently, she found herself at the Nutley Historical Society in New Jersey, in a room with 40 women who were holding a baby shower. One by one, she plucked the women aside to record their advice for the mother-to-be.
“It was absolutely joyous,” she said.
If you’re a subscriber, you can read the article on Crain’s here: http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20120205/SUB/302059993