Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Oxford Project" by Peter Feldstein and Stephen G. Bloom

In April 1984 Peter Feldstein wrote a letter to the residents of Oxford, Iowa. He asked them to participate in a photographic study of the town and its’ people. All 693 of them. And they all agreed!

Setting up in a storefront on Augusta Avenue he taped a sign in the window that said simply “Free Pictures.” He would file these photos away for 21 years and then re-photograph the residents and record the changes in the town. The results were very surprising.

In an era during which we went through the Reagan years and George Bush and then 8 years of Bill Clinton, through the first term of George W. Bush , this town has not changed all that much. The population of 693 is now 705. The racial make up of the town is largely the same as well. There were 265 houses there in 1984. In 2005 there were 286. Births and deaths seem to have been almost equal in number.

The photographs are just part of the real story here. Exclusively in black and white, the photos are stark images of the people who live and work in Oxford. The authors have arranged the photos in family groups with an accompanying narrative on each group. And the people are not at all shy when it comes to assessing themselves and their town. There seems to be no lack of candor in their responses.

The Hoyt family is a good example. Jim, Sr. is a World War Two veteran. He is one of the soldiers who liberated Buchenwald. In 1984 he poses dressed in a dark leather jacket and his VFW cap. He wears a tie. His last job was as a letter carrier.

His son Jim, Jr. is a Vietnam Veteran. He posed in a light colored jacket and slacks, also wearing a VFW cap. Like his Dad, he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He works as a porter for J.C. Penny. In the 2005 photos they are clearly older, but both still look surprisingly strong.

Doris Hoyt is photographed in 1984 wearing a dress with a floral trimmed hem, a string of pearls around her neck. She looks amused. In the 2005 photo she wears slacks with a casual pullover. She still looks amused. She recounts the trials of both her husband and her son Jim, Jr. as well as the other members of the family. When you look at her you see an indomitable spirit. She is clearly the spine of the Hoyt family.

Some of the people photographed were children in 1984. In them you see the physical changes more clearly than in the elderly. But the interviews and quotes are what really give you an insight into these people.

This is an unusual and thought provoking book. Ranging from the simple and patriotic to the wild and adventurous, this book captures more than just the town of Oxford. Though on the surface the statistics show very little change in demographics, the accompanying narratives tell us so much more about the changes in attitude that have taken place all over America, even in small towns like Oxford.

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