Arts & Culture

The Heirloomist Captures the Art of the Keepsake

In her new book, photographer Shana Novak finds the storytelling magic in everyday objects

A woman wearing a denim shirt sitting on a green chair at a white desk.

Photo: Courtesy of Shana Novak

The Heirloomist author Shana Novak.

An old Nikon. A toolbox. A straw hat. A note of encouragement. 

These are the sorts of items that intrigue the New York City still life photographer Shana Novak the most. More than a decade ago, she began documenting such objects on her site, the Heirloomist. “It started as a personal photography project between my grandmother and me,” the Omaha native recalls. “She supplied the stories and family heirlooms; I took the photographs. It was really special to apply my professional experience to objects that told my personal story. And when she died, I continued the project in her honor.” 

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In so doing, Novak expanded her focus beyond her own family’s possessions. “Out of the gate, the idea of celebrating stories through heirlooms proved wildly popular and things snowballed,” Novak says. “I have photographed nearly fifteen-hundred heirlooms for clients in almost every state.”

The premise is simple. Send something, anything, that qualifies as a personal heirloom to Novak, and she will photograph it for you on a white background—essentially creating another keepsake. 

Now she’s sharing some of those images in a new book, The Heirloomist: 100 Treasures and the Stories They Tell , along with the stories behind each object. 

One of Novak’s Southern favorites came from Kristin Thul of Aledo, Texas. “Her family owned a ranch, and her grandfather brought a new horse home one day, not knowing it was pregnant,” Novak says. “The horse and grandfather have since passed, but the horse’s offspring, and Kristen’s saddle, are connections to that legacy.” 

photo: Shana Novak
Kristin Thul’s saddle.
photo: Shana Novak
Tennis balls that belonged to Whitney Whitmore’s beloved dog Bailey in Williamsburg, Virginia.

There are others, too. A collection of tiny toys that helped a little girl in Kentucky get through her cancer treatment; a trio of tennis balls that belonged to a beloved dog in Virginia; a pair of tickets to an Elvis concert from North Carolina. “I think Southerners represent the best of the Heirloomist, in their reverence for family and kindness,” Novak says. “And the magic is that their stories are really just human stories.” 

photo: Shana Novak
Pens collected by the owner of Ellison’s Shoes, Morton Ellison, in Charleston, South Carolina.
photo: Shana Novak
A pair of tickets from an Elvis concert in North Carolina.

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