My small town roots drew me to a hefty arty book about the people in Oxford, Iowa, population 705. But it was my love of a good story that kept me glued to The Oxford Project.
In 1984, Peter Feldstein photographed 670 Oxford residents (the population then was 676) and displayed the 4×5 black and white prints around town. Funding from the Iowa Arts Council and the trusting nature of the townspeople—who responded to a simple letter from Feldstein—made the project possible. Two decades later, Feldstein returned to Oxford and asked to photograph residents again. Some had moved, a few had died, but most had stayed and were willing to be photographed. The result is a fascinating look at people in a then-and-now style, with their 1984 and circa 2006-2007 portraits side by side, accompanied by short personal narratives. Mary Somerville writes about politics and her commitment to the Iowa caucuses; her daughter Kristi, a toddler in 1984, now a college graduate, also talks about politics (and Obama), along with getting her PhD. and traveling. A man posing with his four children talks about how he thought his parents were crazy to have four kids; he tries, unsuccessfully, to avoid talking about his part-time job picking up dead deer on the side of the road.
Stephen G. Bloom, the writer on The Oxford Project, artfully shapes and edits each story to its essence. The photographs and text together create a still-life documentary as fascinating to me as Michael Apted’s Up Series . (I remember when it was 21-Up, and now we’re at 49-Up. Yikes!.)
I can’t stop looking into these faces and reading their stories. I look for clues as to what has changed—and what has stayed the same—in these last two decades. I love the quiet dignity in each of the portraits and how the book design reinforces that every single person in Oxford, Iowa, has a story. Of course you can say the same thing about people living in any situation. I just like to point it out to those who may not have had the opportunity to live in a small town.