THE OXFORD PROJECT
What do people do in Oxford, Iowa? Euchre is popular. Some of the men go “coon huntin’.” Women clean houses and cook – anything from koloches to sliced deer in cream of mushroom soup.
Oxford is quintessential flyover, small-town America, a town of 700 people. It’s got black sheep, Christians and Buddhists. Death brings with it 28 casseroles to the griever’s door. Everyone knows everyone else’s dirt.
The town is at the bottom of two small hills in the rolling plains of Eastern Iowa, 100 miles east of Des Moines. Corn and soybean fields lead you in and out of Oxford. The seasons are extreme; sweat on contact, humid summers and winters so cold, you can feel the chill in your bones. It’s tornado country, where severe thunderstorms are green and you can actually smell them coming. Many conversations in Oxford begin and end with the weather.
There’s a pony farm on the outskirts of town with cattle grazing in the distance. Across the street there’s a dilapidated barn with missing boards. The Hummer family’s trucking business in rural Oxford flies a giant American flag every day. It’s the can’t-miss signal that the town is just around the bend. The turn off from old Highway 6 is marked by a red and white sign reading “Oxford.” An arrow points you in the right direction.
As you descend into town, the homes look modest, old, and in need of paint. Oxford has that unvarnished, down-home character. There’s one restaurant – Murphy’s and it’s only open for dinner. Oxford is 16 miles from Iowa City and the University of Iowa, but it may as well be 16,000.
Most of the townspeople work in Iowa City or nearby. Some rely on farming to make a living. Others work for Amana refrigeration. All are white, except for a Mexican family that bought a house there last summer. Iowa’s a red state, but Oxford folks aren’t so sure about President Bush. Principles and values are the lifeblood of this community. People are judged on their actions. There is a collective sense of protection here. Residents drive under the speed limit cause there’s no need to hurry. It’s a town under the national radar. Much of the nation has never heard or really cared about Oxford, Iowa – that is until now.
The exhibition is called “The Oxford Project.” And, all photographer Peter Feldstein did was offer to take free pictures. All journalist Stephen Bloom did was ask people to tell the truth about themselves. Results are nothing short of sublime, poetic and extraordinary.
“The Oxford Project” took root in 1984. Peter Feldstein, a native New Yorker, studied at the University of Iowa. He retired from the university last year after three decades as a professor of photography and digital imagery. He moved to Oxford in 1978 and decided to take a picture of everyone in town. He posted a sign reading “Free pictures.” “I wanted to make it as democratic as possible,” Feldstein says. His goal was to let each picture tell that person’s story. Feldstein didn’t tell people how to stand or what to do. From start to finish each shoot took just seconds. It was a project that demanded he make as few artistic decisions as possible. Everyone saw Feldstein sitting there. The town’s only five blocks long. “Someone referred to me as that slightly eccentric guy who talks to children and dogs,” Feldstein smirks. At first, it was the curious school kids who dropped by, then a few old couples out for a walk. On Memorial Day, 165 people marched over from the American Legion hall to have their pictures taken. Feldstein’s setup couldn’t have been less complicated: an old construction tarp backdrop, two quartz lights and his trusty four by five inch view camera.
Some people in town thought to bring props and Feldstein allowed it. One guy brought his 300-pound pet lion. Another held a raccoon. One guy drank a beer. Another wore his wife’s wig. One young man came dressed as a cowboy. He thought he was one. On his way out when Feldstein told him, “Be good,” he looked back with a swagger and said, “That ain’t the cowboy way.”
They kept coming. It seemed people liked getting their picture taken. After awhile, Feldstein had snapped pictures of the entire town. There were just a handful of those too sick, too young, or too old whom he didn’t get. Anyway, that was it. That was “The Oxford Project” for 21 years – an un-posed, un-staged, one-take snapshot of the people of Oxford. “Originally, I was going to do a book on the project or something. That never happened. So, I just hung onto the negatives.”
Then, two decades later, Feldstein got to talking with his University of Iowa buddy, journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom, and “The Oxford Project” was reborn. The new idea was an exercise in time travel, an experiment with photography and the written word. Over the last few months, Feldstein has re-shot many of the portraits, Bloom has interviewed dozens of the subjects about their lives, and together they’ve turned the town’s stories into art.
Like famed Arkansas artist Mike Disfarmer, who took snapshots of his neighbors in the 1940’s, Feldstein’s portraits speak volumes about rural America. But Feldstein and Bloom wanted to take this narrative project to a new level. Their idea was to show the visual transformation of each person over a 21-year period with portraits on either side of the canvas (the 1984 picture on the left – the 2005 picture on the right), and life stories boiled down to no more than 450 words in the middle. It’s a risk. Many art viewers start in the middle of a piece and work their way outward. In this case, there’s a bunch of words in the way. But that’s exactly what Bloom and Feldstein wanted. Bloom and Feldstein knew that the text had to be so captivating that it would force the viewer to sit up and pay attention.
Bloom has pulled this kind of thing off before. His book Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America focused on the not-so-pleasant changes occurring in the tiny farm-town of Postville, Iowa, after Hasidic Jews took over a defunct meant processing plant in town. Bloom’s careful account of the town’s identity crisis garnered him “Best Book of the Year” honors from The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Denver Rocky Mountain News and St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2000. He interviewed more than 350 people to get the whole truth and is working on doing the same in Oxford.
“What’s amazing about this project,” Bloom says, “is the ability to see back 20 years and then in the future 20 years. It gives you a sense of eeriness. Oxford is a close-knit family that’s both exhilarating and suffocating.” It’s Bloom’s job to get to know the person behind the portrait. As a staff-writer with The Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News and Los Angeles Times he has honed the craft of interviewing. He’s not interested in recitation of facts, instead he strives to get to the heart of the matter – the moment Linda Cox fell in love with her husband to be or when Jim Hoyt liberated the Buchenwald Concentration Camp during World War II. Bloom gets excited about the clickety-clack of how words fit together and his work on “The Oxford Project” is a glimpse into the mind of both a wordsmith and an artist.
Feldstein is known for his exploration of the use of symbols and his work in cliché verre, a type of photographic etching that dates back to the beginning of photography and was used by a few 19th century French artists. Most of his professional career – the last 27 years – has been spent working out of his Oxford studio. “The Oxford Project” is a welcome distraction from his photographic endeavors and he says it’s taught him a lot. “I know that a lot of my point of view comes from the respect that I’ve come to have for the people here,” Feldstein says. “I used to think very differently about many of my neighbors than I do now. Actually a lot of these feelings started when I began talking to people just before the last election. I found myself quite surprised at the depth of concern, the awareness and intelligence of many people. This project has also taught me that everyone is truly related to someone else.” His studio is right off the main drag and is full of proofs and images.
Bloom and Feldstein are currently in talks for what they believe will be a nationwide museum tour. Fifteen completed pieces have already been sold to The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for permanent placement in its gallery. Smithsonian Magazine featured the project in last June’s issue. The men have more work to do, more portraits to be taken and more interviews to complete. But they’re onto something big, something that will put Oxford, Iowa, on the national map and something that will propel small-town America into the consciousness of the big city art scene.
At its core, “The Oxford Project” is really about community, real-life America. While some may not be Paris Hilton perfect, these Americans are beaming with beauty. The images and text provide total access inside America’s sublime soul.
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Written by: Ben Bamsey