Photographer Peter Feldstein compiled this portrait of Oxford, Iowa, pop. 693, in 1984. He returned 20 years later and, with the help of journalist Stephen Bloom, turned the town’s stories into a book.
The concept behind The Oxford Project is simple. Move to a small town because that is where you can afford studio space in two dilapidated storefronts and set up shop. “For me,” writes Feldstein, “Oxford was exotic, mysterious and strange. Even though I was an artist, a college professor, and a New York Jew, almost everyone in town welcomed me.”
As a child, Feldstein coped with his anxiety by being a compulsive counter, and the idea to take photos of everyone in Oxford had its roots in that tic.
What did the residents get in return? They got to be the subjects of an exhibit for everyone else in town to see during a brief interval of glory and then they got to be negatives put into dusty storage while time marched on.
More than 20 years later, Feldstein revisited as many of his original subjects as possible. Rolls of flesh have intruded, hair has disappeared, the sweet unfinished faces of little children and teens have either hardened or blossomed into their adult features. A good number of citizens of Oxford, Iowa, a small town about 16 miles from Iowa City, have either moved away or died. Many of those who remain posed once more, often tilting their heads or placing their hands in an almost eerie unconscious replication of gestures from years gone by, but this time words are added to the mix thanks to interviews conducted by Bloom, who took what the townspeople said and “freeze-dried” (his term) their reflections into concise and memorable set pieces that in their everyday rhythms verge on a kind of found poetry.
Oxford has remained amazingly stable in the time that this project has taken place. In 1984, there were 693 residents (670 of whom were photographed), mostly Caucasian and bohemian, with 12 who identified as minorities. Catholic and Lutheran are and were the predominant religious denominations. Of the adults, married couples outnumbered those who are single, widowed, separated and divorced combined in both time frames. There were and are more Democrats than Republicans. Today there are 705 residents.
The men who served in wars still nurse all kinds of terrible wounds and memories. A gunner on a warship in the Tachen Islands says, “The things I saw would set most people into orbit.” The old guys, the ones who are now dying out, have a disproportionate tendency to go by the nickname Bud. Most people work, as a porter at J.C. Penney, teaching, selling insurance, at the Ford dealership, for Roads as the guy who drives around at 2 a.m. and gets to decide about whether to call out the snowplows, as a secretary at Amana Refrigeration.
One man is a plumber and, in his off time, he works as a diver for the county: “I dive for drowning victims, hunting accidents, snowmobiles that go through the ice. It’s black down there, and you’re crawling through logs. I’ve probably pulled out 20 bodies since ’73.”
They know the sad stories of each other’s early lives, such as what happened to Brianne Leckness: “My mom left me at a church when I was three. She used to travel with the carnival, and the carnival ended up going broke in Iowa. When my mom and my stepfather had a hard day, they’d take it out on me. So she left me at this church with our dog Freddy. She pinned a note to my shirt that said, ‘Please take care of her. We can’t any longer.’”
Gays exist, at least on the edges. One woman says of her son, Johnny, that he used to be a jeweler in Houston. He came back home after he was diagnosed with HIV in the late ’80s: “When the kids were little, I wasn’t home a lot (I had two jobs, sometimes three), and Johnny took over the responsibilities. He liked to bake and cook, and he liked nice clothes. I kinda felt it coming. I accept it, but his father can’t.”
Hippies exist, too: families that grew up in panel trucks and named their children Unity and Cayenne.
Some people in Oxford seem to relish the limitations of their homogeneity: “I’ve never talked to a black person in my life. I don’t have any trust with them. There’s two kinds of blacks. There’s the no-good kind, and then there’s the white black. I don’t agree with how they talk, the jibber-jabber. I don’t like the baggy, hip-hop clothes.”
Yet one of the few people of color, a young woman named Ebony, says her mixed heritage has never caused any problems, and she does not think about it much: “If someone asks, I just tell them what I am. No one has treated me badly. At least nothing I can remember.”
For the most part the citizens of Oxford accept the cycles of life, although once in a while someone likes to tempt fate. Kevin Hackathorn tells Bloom: “I like my Harley, it’s a Softail Classic. They run about $22,500. I don’t wear a helmet. I like the freedom. If you’re involved in a bad accident, it’s pretty much over anyway. The only difference is an open or closed casket.”
They suffer unbearable losses, little children and grown ones to cancer and accidents and husbands and wives to the more ordinary oppressions of time. Some who suffer bounce back. A man who lost his infant daughter due to “placental abruption,” which he says is “a Latin term for Bad Fucking Luck,” is grateful that during her six days of life in a hospital she met all of her extended family: “There’d be eight, 10 people singing to her. We took her outside. I wanted her to feel the breeze and hear the birds and other children playing.” Later: “Charisma and I now have a year-and-half-old daughter. Her name is Isabella Noel, which means Beautiful Gift. Are we better parents after losing Brit? Absolutely. Smelling the smells, tasting the tastes, knowing it could be gone—it changes you. Life is a pretty thin string.”
The people of Oxford believe in regeneration, and they believe, many of them, in Jesus. They also believe in love. A preschool teacher says, “I totally believe my soul mate is out there, but he’s hiding.”
What we have in this spellbinding and ambitious and eccentric volume is Our Town and Spoon River Anthology updated and revivified. We also have journalism, in words and in images, at its heart-stopping best and its most poignant.
Review by Madeleine Blais on Nieman Reports. Reprinted with permission.