The Oxford Project: Biography of a Town

This review is a repost of my original review, written for Murmur.com.

I grew up in a small town in Maine – not quite as tiny as the 700-person Oxford, Iowa, but pretty damn close. Living in a small town, you hear the stories of practically everyone there, and discover the wealth of life experience in even the smallest, most rural towns. I’ve never seen a film, heard a song or read a book that illustrates this quite as well as Peter Feldstein and Stephen Bloom’s The Oxford Project.

In May of 1984, photographer Peter Feldstein took on an ambitious project – photograph all 693 residents of the midwestern town of Oxford, Iowa. Shooting his photos from his downtown studio, he very nearly reached his goal, with 670 takers stopping in over that summer. The direction from Feldstein for each photograph was fair and democratic, if only for the lack of editorializing on his part. Each subject was only photographed once, and few posed or did anything out of the ordinary. In spring of 1985 Peter had an exhibition in Oxford’s American Legion Hall, and the prints and negatives were filed away for decades.

Struck by inspiration or nostalgia in 2004 Feldstein, who has lived in Oxford for 34 years, decided to recreate the project with biographer Stephen Bloom in tow. Although about a hundred of the original residents had passed away and about the same number had moved to other towns, most still lived in Oxford 20 years later. Over the next couple of years, Peter again photographed the population of the Iowa hamlet. A new wrinkle was added this time – Stephen Bloom interviewed one hundred of the residents who appeared in both of the photographic odysseys.

The end product of the 24-year project is this book, The Oxford Project. Apart from some introductory words from the authors, and statistics about the town in the preceeding 24 years, the book is all in the hands of the residents of Oxford. Each two-page spread features before-and-after shots of Oxford’s various locals, and short chunks of Bloom’s interviews. Fold-out spreads are used to show full-page portraits or groups of photos, like a then-and-now collection of all the denizens that were infants the first time around.

In spite of (or because of) the fact Feldstein didn’t offer direction when taking pictures, the similarity between the 1984 and 2004 portraits is often stunning to see. Almost every resident exhibits the same quirks as the first time around – a head slightly tilted here, a wide smile there, a cowboy hat or pet companion. Those who were approaching middle age in the earlier photos look much the same, albeit with a little less hair or more weight around the waist. The pictures that were of babies, children and teens are more striking. Although the poses and expressions are still recognizable in the recent photos, the subjects have changed immensely physically, and often look more comfortable in their bodies as young adults. In every photo, there is a joy in noticing both what is different and what has stayed the same over nearly a quarter-century.

I’m a big fan of NPR radio shows like This American Life, Storycorps, and This I Believe, and one of the reasons is that they often tell the fascinating stories of ordinary people. Following in the footsteps of those programs, the hundred interview subjects in Oxford tell stories big and small, heartrending and triumphant. These stories are a portrait of this specific midwestern town, but really give a feel of small-town America as well. With a collection of midwestern conservatives, hippies, parents, children, businessmen and free spirits, every story is different. Bloom did an excellent job just letting the stories be told, and compressing hours of conversation into brief, poignant pages. From tales of finding lampshades made of human skin in Nazi Germany to funny anecdotes about young romances, the stories are as varied as the folks telling them.

While I usually have a hard time suggesting a $50 book to most people, I can still recommend The Oxford Project without hesitation. The stories are too good, the photos too captivating, and the production value of the beautiful hardcover too high to pass up. The book is available at your local independent bookstores, as well as online retailers. If you’d like more information about the project or to see more photos from the book, there are preview pages online at the authors’ website.

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