Not Your Typical Family Portraits

At TellChronicles, customers can simply drop by to document life’s little moments.

Sisters Julie Monticello and Emily Hellmuth have always loved using pictures to tell stories. As the owners of the Arlington photography studio TellChronicles (, they invite their clients to do just that.

“We asked ourselves: What if there were a place where the sole purpose was to capture who you are? And what would you do there?” explains Monticello. Those and similar questions formed the genesis of their nontraditional studio, located in an unassuming little storefront on Lee Highway that they’ve dubbed the “Memory Shack.”

Inside the studio, writing prompts, such as “What are you worried about?” and “Tell me your dreams,” encourage clients to take snapshots of their emotions on any given day. In addition to photographs, those snapshots might include notes (“crumbs,” as they call them), which are then hung on a garland or tucked into scrapbooks that clients work on during studio visits. “Memories are supposed to be up and around you,” Hellmuth says with a smile. “They’re not supposed to be stuck in a drawer.”

For $350 a year, clients get unlimited drop-in photo sessions and occasional “field trips” to off-site locations. Prints—giclée images on hefty cotton paper or framed canvases—can then be ordered on an à la carte basis. Prices for prints range from $6 to about $200.

“We have couples who stop by on their way to dinner; kids who come in, dirt-streaked after a soccer tournament; families who pop in with grandparents in town for the weekend,” Monticello explains of the low-stress, come-as-you-are vibe.

As it turns out, the sisters have quite a story themselves. As the younger two of four siblings (even so, they are 14 years apart), they watched their once-vibrant mother descend into the depths of paranoid schizophrenia. Hellmuth was home-schooled by her mom until age 15, when she moved in with Monticello and Monticello’s husband. (Today, Hellmuth is married and living in Westover, while Monticello—a mom to six kids—lives with her family in Yorktown.)

One thing life has taught them, they say, is the importance of documenting life’s small moments. “We’re all so rushed, we don’t set aside time for making memories,” Monticello says. “We want to give people permission to sit down and focus on their own lives.”

Categories: Style