Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Oxford Project, photographs by Peter Feldstein, text by Stephen G. Bloom

Before my daughter began attending the University of Iowa in Iowa City (in Iowa, of course), I had a vague notion of Iowa. I had driven though twice and noticed the pretty farmland. I thought of it as a comfortable, mostly untroubled place with good schools. Perhaps those schools have succeeded in teaching lots of people to write. I now keep reading books about how hard life in Iowa can be.

Add to the list* The Oxford Project with photographs by Peter Feldstein and text by Stephen G. Bloom. Feldstein began the project back in 1984 when he asked everyone in the town of Oxford to pose in front of his camera for a portrait. He promised to take only a few minutes of their time and that he would display some of the pictures in downtown Oxford. He also told them in his introductory letter that the project was partly funded by the Iowa Arts Council. That seemed reasonable, as he was an art professor at the University of Iowa, about a fifteen minute drive from the town. Also, though he was a recent resident and not really considered "one of them," he had spruced up several of the abandoned storefronts. He eventual photographed 670 of the 676 townspeople.

A little over twenty years later, he got the idea of repeating the process, adding journalist Stephen G. Bloom to interview the subjects about their lives. Though some of the residents had died and other had moved away, he succeeded in getting many to agree to a second photograph. The result of several additional years of work is this impressive and strange local history of Oxford, telling the community story through the lives of the individuals.

What readers will notice right off is that there is nothing homogeneous about people of Oxford. City and suburban dwellers may not realize what anyone from a small town could tell them: small towns are filled with free-thinking individuals. Oxford has its rich and poor, liberal and conservative, etc., but the differences and similarities have nothing to do with these shallow labels. Each person seems to have a unique approach to life that may or may not have contributed to his or her well-being.

There are some themes, of course, including disappointment, alcoholism, longing for a new start, mental anguish, pride, and importance of family. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, while other affirming. Bloom, however, warns readers not to believe everything the subjects say. They are human after all, wanting to please or shock or elicit sympathy. Also, remember that Bloom has only given us several sentences from each person. How they felt on the day of the photograph may color their profiles.

The Oxford Project would be a great title for a book discussion. Its drawbacks are that it is large and expensive. No library will have lots of copies. A book group would have to make a concerted effort to quickly circulate whatever copies were available its members. It does not take long to read. Give each person a couple of days and move it to the next member. With a couple of copies, it could work. Have the person with the best pie crust host the discussion.

Feldstein, Peter. The Oxford Project. Welcome Books, 2008. ISBN 9781599620480

* Other Iowa books: Dewey: The Small-Town Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron, Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships by John T. Price, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (which I never got around to reviewing).

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