Neighbors Magazines

A Park City photographer’s shoebox of nostalgia

How one photographer’s look back sparked her career with a camera

By Deb DeKoff

When I was quite young, I enjoyed going to my grandmother’s home, not for her homemade pasta that was carefully crafted and laid on her table to dry, or for the fresh green beans I would pluck and eat in the garden, or for the cherry tree where my grandfather would lift me to choose my own cherries. All of these were wonderful delights, but what I loved about going to grandma’s house was the photo box.

Kaleb Harvey, owner of Imperfekthings, at work. Photo: Park City Photographers // Deb DeKoff

Sitting on a shelf between small printed images of relatives long gone was a time-worn shoebox. I was only permitted to look at the pictures while she was present, and it was here she’d allow me to hold a black and white print with pinking shear cut edges and ask questions like, “Who is this? Where are you? What are they doing?” I’d look at photos of her mother confined to a wheelchair, Grandma Rose with her sisters Ida and Stella standing and staring in a crooked line, sans smiles. I’d pour over pictures of my mother as a teen, her hair tied back in a scarf, and each print would be taken from my hands in exchange for another. I learned of family history, I learned of vintage fashion, and I connected the present to the past.  

The photo box was a time machine, capturing my toothless first-grade grin, my freckled face framed by split bangs, and a vacation image from my grandparents’ trip to Italy, where my Aunt Geri was “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Each visit to my grandmother’s house might bring the surprise of a new picture added to the box, and I wanted to be the first one to see it.

Photo: Park City Photographers // Deb DeKoff

Yet, despite my lineage relayed in film, as a photographer and mom, I found it challenging to capture images of my boys. I’d surreptitiously sneak snapshots and coordinate posed sessions. These framed prints would take up residence in my home, my boys at four and nine sitting on a tree branch or my youngest thrust in the air after winning a ski race. But my favorite photo is of our family gathered together, shot by another photographer who seemed to connect with my sons, making them laugh and enjoy the experience.

What was the difference between taking the photos myself versus hiring another pro? Well, for one, my sons and my husband took the session seriously. They dressed in accordance with a color palette, knew we were time-bound, and understood these images were an investment. 

Investment. 

Photo: Park City Photographers // Deb DeKoff

Photographers use that word a lot — in a sense that this is the true cost of the images — a cost counted not in dollars and cents but in nostalgia, in memory, in the tiny voice of future generations asking, “Who is this? Where were they? What were they doing?” 

To view Deb’s art in person, visit Red Butte Garden through March 4.

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