Photographer Peter Feldstein and writer Stephen Bloom’s collaboration “The Oxford Project,” at the enterprising Belger Art Center in the Crossroads District through December 31, was twenty-one years in the making.
When Feldstein decided to photograph all 676 residents of Oxford, Iowa, in 1984, the grand idea seemed novel enough at the time. Oxford, a rural town eighteen miles west of Iowa City, looks like other such small towns: a blur in the rear-view mirror as the highway takes one past. Feldstein’s portraits—the 670 subjects who participated were given no instructions on how to dress or to pose, and everyone was democratically photographed once—were taken then put away with little fanfare. It was only in 2005, when Bloom inquired about the pictures and they decided Feldstein would re-photograph everyone he could while Bloom would interview them, that the first project developed into a second, wholly deeper vision.
At the Belger, twenty-two of the portrait-interviews are exhibited; after moving through the exhausting yet exhilarating show, the sampling selected from the larger, extensive, and beautifully produced catalogue more than manages to evoke the overall project. With text separating the 1984 and 2005 pictures, each triptych stands alone; assembled together, the town’s peoples’ stories parallel and balance out one another’s. Along the way, there is much humor and grief, a great deal of compassion, some bewilderment, religious (and secular) acceptance of the way life has turned out, mischief, even, and above all a quality of stoicism that small towns have always bestowed on their residents.
After Sherwood Anderson’s interlocking short stories “Winesburg, Ohio” (1919) with the disappointed disclosures of the inner lives of upstanding citizens like the minister and the schoolteacher, and Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” (1938), it was impossible, if it had ever been possible, to assume small towns in America were clean of personal dilemmas. In the intervening decades, as the Vietnam War, the shifting economy, and the advances in personal computers fragmented society, small towns were often left as ghost towns of the sort Jonathan Raban wrote about in “Bad Land,” in 1996 (one Montana town called Ismay hoped to attract new citizens by renaming itself Joe, Montana).
The subjects of “The Oxford Project” initially reflect the small-town idiosyncrasies and convictions (principally of religion’s strength after death) that have long fed into media stereotypes; then they casually explode the notion that everyone looks like the old couple in Grant Wood’s iconic painting “American Gothic.” One family, the Hoyts, given their own chamber toward the back of the gallery space, sums up everything that Feldstein and Bloom were seeking. The father, Jim, the town mailman, recalls a spelling bee he won in 1939, and then cascades into memories of the Second World War—as one of the “first four American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald,” he speaks of atrocities that still haunt him—only to end with a romantic tribute to his wife, Doris. If Jim Hoyt’s portraits reflect a man’s changes for the not-so-better, his wife’s 2005 picture, when analyzed after reading her thoughts on her life—she tells how all of their three sons were injured in some form, mentions two daughters, and eleven cats—she appears older, naturally, yet happy. (At least, she is smiling). Her final words—“It’s like a sailboat in the ocean. Some days it’s smooth. Other days it’s rough”—might have been offhand to Mrs. Hoyt. Within the context of viewing one-fourth of her life, the phrases amount to an epiphany, if not to her then to a gallery visitor.
There is a respected history of photographers traveling and taking portraits. A recent book on Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs, “Daring to Look,” restores the many captions cut from her work made in travels around the country; her remarks seem made more for her or for an editor than for a reader, but they add a helpful gravitas even if her greatest published images remain more mysterious. From August Sander’s legendary series “People of the Twentieth Century” that sought to delineate the German population during the Nazi era, to Richard Avedon’s “In The American West,” to Mary Ellen Mark’s numerous projects on twins and Indian prostitutes, photographers have used their medium to catch a moment, either in time or out of it.
In the most famous of these projects in America, the 1939 Walker Evans-James Agee book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Evans’s sixty photographs are a stark rejoinder to the then twenty-seven-year-old Agee’s rhapsodies about the poor sharecroppers whom they befriended. Yet, it is a writer’s book; in the “The Oxford Project,” Stephen Bloom remains largely invisible, with the subjects as the authors of their own lives.
The texts add not only weight to the photographs but emotion. Occupations have a small town ring—prison guard, banking, school teacher—and opinions, too. One young man says of small towns, “You know who’s sleeping with whom, but when your mother dies, you know there’ll be 28 people at your door with casseroles.”
There are many terrible stories, of children whose parents died or who were abandoned or abused; and some that turn out okay: one young woman recalls her sixteen-year-old mother being “tricked…into signing adoption papers” by her parents. Years later, mother and daughter were reunited. Another subject, Iowa Honn, born in 1910, explains: “My father said I was the most beautiful baby in the most beautiful state, so he named me Iowa.”
All of the 2005 portraits were taken in the same spot, against a cracked wall front; it is one of the exhibition’s wonderful mysteries that a viewer who looks at the second photographs after reading the texts may see something different in them. It is life photographed from the outside, and from the inside, too.