The Oxford Project
Their town, our town
For a family to have its individual members photographed is not unusual. Schools routinely take individual portraits of the student body. But an entire town having its picture taken? Twice?
That's the unlikely premise of the Oxford Project, an exercise in social documentation begun by photographer Peter Feldstein 25 years ago, when he had the impulse to capture on film every one of the 676 residents of Oxford, a rural community in Eastern Iowa just 16 miles down the road from the University of Iowa, where Feldstein was teaching photography. It was, to Feldstein's mind, the ultimate in democratic documentation: everyone in town photographed in the same no-frills full-body shot, without regard to age, race, creed, or social standing. Getting all his neighbors – Feldstein lived in Oxford, too – to step before the camera took a few months, but the photographer eventually succeeded in making portraits of 99.9% of the population. He exhibited the images in the town's American Legion Hall, then put them away. But in 2005, Feldstein had the idea of revisiting the project and making updated portraits of the people he'd photographed in 1984. Over two years, he tracked down 100 of the original subjects and not only photographed them but had a writer, Stephen G. Bloom, interview them about their lives. The results were collected in a book, The Oxford Project, published by Welcome Books in 2008.
The book is at once strikingly intimate and expansive. The townspeople of Oxford do little to hide themselves from Feldstein or Bloom; they look directly into the camera, and their words are as open and frank as their gazes. They own their lives – every wrinkle, every pound, every joy, every sorrow – and share them as freely as they would a cup of sugar with a neighbor. Some of what they share affirms the virtues of life in an American small town; some of it reveals heartbreaking secrets. Everywhere, we see the passage of time and how it works on us, for good and ill, and the fact that we see this across the span of a generation and throughout an entire community gives the Oxford Project the sweeping scope and power of Our Town or Spoon River Anthology. It's both personal and historical, which makes Feldstein's achievement doubly absorbing and doubly affecting.
This week, the photographer comes to Austin to talk about Oxford in a Focus on Photography event at the Ransom Center. On Thursday, April 16, 7pm, Feldstein will narrate a slide presentation and read from The Oxford Project, plus answer questions from the audience and sign copies of the book. The event is free, but seating is limited. To hear a live webcast, visit www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/webcast. For more information, visit www.hrc.utexas.edu.