The Oxford Project, a collaboration between photographer Peter Feldstein and writer Stephen G. Bloom (as well as the town of Oxford, Iowa, without whom this project would not have existed), has a commanding presence. It’s not just the size of the book, but the scope of the undertaking: an entire town photographed twice, once in 1984 and again in 2006. Twenty-five years in the making, it is proof of dedication, not just to the discipline of photography, or a particular project of record, but to a community and its values —in this case a small, midwestern town set just outside of Iowa City in the heart of the Grain Belt.
Starting with the lenticular image on the cover of the book, I was impressed. The two photos are of Hunter Tandy. In 1984, he’s a “goofy kid” Feldstein says, wearing a shirt that reads “Gimme a Break,” and then, 22 years later, he’s grown into “this other kind of being.” The book’s focus is apparent in the startling differences between the two images as well as in the subtle similarities. As Feldstein says, it’s about “what life does to you” (could this really be the same person?), but also about tenacity and the joy of life. Bloom writes in the introduction that “`l`ife transforms us,” that “`h`iccups to our health and happiness make an impact.” So this is a book about transformation, the past, the fleeting present, and a populace’s relationship to change. All of this is clear before we open the cover, because as we move the images back and forth, a third portrait emerges, a coalescing of the two Hunters. In this image, the older wraps his hands around the middle of the younger. It is as if he’s holding onto some part of his childhood, as we all do.
Opening the book starts the creation (or recreation) of Oxford, Iowa, and its inhabitants. Katrina Fried, the editor, whose name, Feldstein says, “should be on the cover,” did an incredible job of laying out the book in such a way that it creates, for the reader, a voyage through time and space. There are pages filled with images and words and foldouts (at the beginning, all 670 negatives from 1984 are included in a four-page spread that open up so that the reader can see everyone in town — you could spend hours studying these photos side by side). There are entire families of befores and afters. As Bloom notes, it is startling to see these photos next to each other and notice the similar poses and expressions despite the difference in clothing and hairstyles. But there are also photos of people in 1984 that have no 2006 companion. The questions and suggestions arising from this are profound and sometimes disturbing (death, of course, is a constant theme).
This lends a certain anthropological feel to the Oxford Project. There are maps and statistics and pictures of the city, allowing the reader to get a sense of the community, which extends beyond the people, but which is paradoxically encompassed by them. It’s interesting to note, for example, that the north-facing wall that Feldstein used to take the newer photographs is almost a map of the book’s inherent simplicity and complexity. When I asked him about his decision he said, “ I knew I wanted something that wasn’t fancy. And I knew that the backdrops used by commercial photographers are pretty awful. And in a sense I wanted something that represented more of the kind of place it was — a kind of scruffy place. It’s changed.” In other words, the town has grown. He also noted that he was surprised at how fast the wall deteriorated. It’s like a microcosm of the changes seen in the population. Though unintentionally so, the lines on the wall are representative of the process: a map of uncontrollable change. Feldstein’s a recorder, but also one of the cracks on the wall that give the town such character. I love the seamless transitions between statistics, lists of photographs, and individuals and their personal stories. It’s like a magnificent telescope into the lives and the life of a town.
When I asked Feldstein about his relationship with the town and its inhabitants and how that relationship affected his work, his response was both one that we hope to hear from an artist as Artist and an artist representing a community: “People loved this project. They were so moved by it. We’re not making much money. It’s about community.” This is the kind of person that we want recording our images and our stories. It is because of his inclusion in the community that we hear and see people’s rich stories. The stories range from funny to heartbreaking. There are tree-huggers and self-proclaimed hippies. There are livestock butchers, high-school sweethearts, divorcees, and people who feel somewhat trapped. There are motorcyclists and Christians. There are 670 lives. Though the stories are, as Bloom says, “shrink-wrapped,” they adhere to the voice of the teller. They are, in Feldstein’s words, “sculpted” to reveal the essence of the story. One of the last things we read is a quote from Mindy Portwood, a resident, who says, “I hope Oxford is my home forever.” Though this is not every resident’s sentiment, it is a defining quality in all their lives.
Thanks in part to Feldstein’s citizenship, his subjects are amazingly open. There seems to be some sort of cathartic release in telling our stories to other people (to the world, in this case). These relationships, intimate and singular, true and not, extend beyond the border of the town and so, in connecting with thousands of other people, make them all the more human.
Ultimately, the Oxford Project is an homage to Americana, a photographic record of small-town America and the story of intertwined lives (with each other, but ultimately with the reader, too). It is about history, personal and collective, and that ubiquitous force: change. This book, like the facets of human features, is so intriguing, it is nearly impossible to put down. •
The Oxford Project
By Stephen G. Bloom and Peter Feldstein
$50, 264 pages (hardcover)
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