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?
Photo via Gothamist, courtesy of Madison Square Park
Storykeep’s headquarters are located in a stark but up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood called Gowanus. In just the few short years that we’ve been here, Gowanus has transformed from an almost entirely industrial neighborhood into one with great bars, restaurants, museums, and a burgeoning art scene. Though this kind of restructuring and rebranding of NYC neighborhoods is common, New York, like all of us, has heirlooms: hidden treasures that remind New Yorkers where we came from and how we got here.
I came across this Gothamist article about how the Statue of Liberty was shipped from France to the United States in 350 individual pieces and then assembled. As the article points out, when the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty ran out of the money needed for construction in 1876, the arm and torch were put on display in Madison Square Park and newspapers ran a series of articles urging people to donate (an early version of crowdfunding!).
When we take the time to research our heirlooms, we uncover a depth of history within our own families that we might otherwise take for granted. The same can be said for looking a little deeper at the artifacts of New York. From the ornately designed City Hall subway station discontinued in 1945 that re-opened for viewing in February 2014, to The Cloisters museum building, built from the re-assembled remains of five European abbeys, New York exudes historical depths that divulge more meaning the more we learn about them.
In the six years that I’ve lived in New York City, it has firmly taken root as a place I inextricably call home. Just as we all grow within our own families, so do we evolve in and with the place we live. As I wander the fields of Central Park, discover hidden bookstores in the upper east side, or meander into bars built in the early 19th century, New York’s history is now linked to my own personal history. Now, when I catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, instead of seeing it as merely a recognizable symbol of NYC, I’m reminded of something bigger and more significant, without which, my home would not be the same place I know and love.
– John Eckenrode, StoryKeep Intern
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.