Imagine photographing every member of your community. How long would it take? Days? Weeks? Years? It wouldn't be easy. Which is why Peter Feldstein is one of the few people — if not the sole person — to have done it. In 1984, he set up a small studio in his town of Oxford, Iowa (population 676), and, with a fat red marker, made a sign that said "Free Pictures." He taped it to a storefront on Augusta Avenue, Oxford's main street, and waited.
Oxford, Iowa's population totaled 693 when Peter Feldstein photographed it in 1984. He photographed almost every resident, and he did it again in 2005. Many of them had died or moved away, but the vast majority still lived in Oxford.
Kathy Tandy (b. 1952): "I make donuts at the depot. ... Everyone in town has always known me as the 'Big Girl.' Worst I ever got was 432 pounds. Bob Cochran had to weigh me on his livestock scale down at the Sale Barn."
Pat Henkelman (b. 1929): "In 1985, after 45 years of marriage, he left me for another woman. I didn't know who the woman was, but everyone else in town did. ... My faith helped me get through it. I don't have malice or anger. ... There used to be a hat store in town. I wish it was still here. I love hats."
Steve Henkelman (b.1950): "I've worked for the prison since 1984. ... I leave for work at 6:30 in the morning, but Mom still makes breakfast for me. ... My wife and I collect Aladdin lamps and sell them on eBay. We probably have 300. We belong to a group called the Aladdinites."
Brianne Leckness (b. 1980), birth name Bobby Jo Kirkwood: "My mom left me at a church when I was 3. She used to travel with the carnival, and the carnival ended up going broke in Iowa. She pinned a note to my shirt that said, 'Please take care of her. We can't any longer.' "
Calvin Colony (b. 1956): "I've had maybe 13 lions over the years. You can train 'em, but you can never tame 'em. ... For the last six years, I've been going to a resort in Jamaica called Hedonism. ... All the alcohol you want is included in the price. It's a good time. You don't have to take many clothes."
Darrel Lindley (b. 1933): "I shoot 'em, bleed 'em, then skin 'em. I do hogs, cattle, goats, buffalo and sheep. I use a .22 Magnum. After I shoot 'em, I cut their throats. ... One thing I do, if there are kids around, is I cut out the eye (its' a little smaller than a golf ball), and I swish it around in my mouth. The kids can't believe that."
Hunter Tandy (b. 1975): "When I was a kid, I said I'd like to be buried in an 18-wheeler when I died. I still do. I always wanted to be a truck driver like my father."
Jim Hoyt Sr.: "I'm the last living of the first four American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. ... My father worked for the railroad and my mother was a rural schoolteacher. My biggest ahievement was winning the Johnson County Spelling Bee in 1939. I was in the eighth grade and I still remember the word I spelled correctly: archive."
Jim Hoyt Jr.: "They used Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle. They also used napalm. When someone got burnt by napalm, they'd look like a crispy critter. It was very unpleasant. ... I have post-traumatic stress disorder, but I've never had nightmares."
Ben Stoker (b. 1984): "A lot of people don't like small towns because they're so tight-knit. But that's what makes this place so great. You know who's sleeping with whom, but when your mother dies, you also know there'll be 28 people at your door with casseroles."
John Honn (b. 1945): "I used to be a buckskinner, shooting muzzle-loaded rifles, throwing knives and tomahawks. ... I first heard the Lord speak to me when I was 16. ... He told me to start a gospel church and call it Anchored in Faith."
Melody (Honn) Hiller (b. 1970): "I used to work in a strip club in Phoenix called the Kitty Kat. ... I was a bad girl. ... I had two or three boyfriends, sometimes all at the same time. That's the life of a buckskinner girl. ... I got burned out and wanted to try something else. ... I went to church, and it was like God grabbed me by the back of my head ... and said, "Get your act together, girl!"
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Twenty years later, Feldstein did it again. While many of Oxford's residents had moved or passed away, a great number were still there. And this time they did more than just pose for a photograph; they shared their life stories with writer Stephen G. Bloom. The photographs and stories have been compiled in a book called The Oxford Project, recent winner of ALA's Alex Award and recipient of the Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher's Outstanding Books of the Year for Most Original Concept.
"Oxford's still the kind of place," reads the introduction, "where drivers don't put on their turn signals because everyone knows where everyone else is going. Almost everyone's phone number starts with the same prefix (828). Dinner and supper are two different meals. Everybody knows what a mudroom is — and has one. The word elevator more commonly refers to a device that raises and lowers grain, not people."
There's John Horn, the rugged buckskinner turned Protestant minister. And Brianne Leckness, who was abandoned by her mother as a baby and spent her life between families. "Nothing for me has been normal," she says, "so why should now be normal?" As a baby, Ben Stoker was held by his father for his portrait. Twenty years later, both of his parents have passed away.
"A lot of people don't like small towns because they're so tight-knit. But that's what makes this place so great. You know who's sleeping with whom, but when your mother dies, you also know there'll be 28 people at your door with casseroles."
What's most amazing is how, 20 years later, many of the Oxford residents pose in exactly the same way. It's proof that although they've changed physically, their habits are much the same. In both photos, Linda Cox stands with her feet together, her left hand holding her right wrist, head tilted slightly to the left. Carol Ann Hebl's body is twice turned slightly to the right, as she holds two fingers with her right hand — which now has a wedding ring on it. Vince Grabin is still wearing a cowboy hat, and so are his brothers.
The passage of time takes its toll. Life transforms us. In addition to inexorable signs of aging, our appearances change because of large and small tragedies. ... Electric smiles have ripened into middle-aged frowns. Full heads of hair are now thin and gray. But in these time-lapse photographs, there are also Oxford men and women who have blossomed, just coming into their own. Some sparkle with possibility and exuberance.
At the end of nearly 300 pages, the residents of Oxford will feel like your own neighbors. They all have idiosyncrasies and stories both funny and sad, told with complete candidness. At first it seems surprising that they would share their stories and secrets so openly with strangers. But most were happy to talk because Feldstein and Bloom were the first to listen. The result is a personal and touching portrait not only of a specific Midwestern town, but also of the general American spirit: tired, perhaps, but still smiling.
Listen to an interview with the book's creators, on WLIU's In The Morning With Bonnie Grace:
Additionally, the American Place Theater will transform The Oxford Project into a theatrical event. The show will be at 7 p.m. Sunday at St. Clement's Church, 423 W. 46th St., New York. To see more photos and stories from The Oxford Project, check out the Web site.
Photos (c) copyright Peter Feldstein from The Oxford Project (Welcome Books)