The Oxford Project.
19 January 2009
No cutesy post headings today, and no time to waste: If you haven't yet seen or bought Peter Feldstein's and Stephen G. Bloom's beautiful and oversized photography book The Oxford Project, you're missing out. To say it is a good book would be entirely understating the case. To say it is one of those rare books that stops time and is transcendent might get a little closer to the mark.
Which is so odd, considering it is a book of photographs of the residents of a small town (Oxford) in Iowa, and is almost oppressive in its subjects' normality. It helps that it is a unique idea: in 1984, art professor and photographer Peter Feldstein set up a small studio in Oxford and invited all the town's residents (population: 693) to have their photos taken for free. Twenty-five years later he went back and took the residents' portraits again (nearly a hundred residents had died; another hundred had moved away; but the rest were there and were largely amenable to having their pictures taken again); he also took along writer Stephen Bloom, who recorded anything the Oxfordians felt like telling them. Between the historical pictures, the present-day pictures, and the text of what the residents had to say, believe me when I say this is a book like no other.
Do you know what I mean when I say a book is so good it stops time? It doesn't happen very often but when it does it's one of those experiences that makes life worthwhile. It might be more strictly accurate to say such a book speeds up time, but for some reason it feels more like time is stopped. I started this book at 10 p.m. on Saturday night, and when I looked up from it the first time, it was 10:45, and it felt like only a minute had passed. The next time I looked up it was 11:30, and then 12:20. Finally I forced myself to put it down because I knew I was going to be tired on Sunday. Then, Sunday morning, I picked it right back up and was lost for another hour. It was wonderful, except I was bereft when I finished it, because lately I have particularly wanted books that, as one might beg Calgon, "take me away from all this."
So what did I particularly notice about this book? Well, the pictures, for one, which are nothing fancy and are in black and white, but which are fascinating. One thing I was particularly drawn to were the older peoples' hands; there is something about the curl of the hand when people have worked with their hands all their lives that is fascinating, individual, and yet strangely universal. In the older women you notice it in their fingers and in the flesh around their wedding rings; in the older men you see it in the permanent crook of their hands and fingers hanging at their sides.
I also enjoyed the text. I can't say I understand the appeal or atmosphere of small towns; I was raised in the midwest as well but, even though I lived on a farm, we were near enough to a bigger city that we never really felt like we had a cohesive small community. But I love reading what people said about living in small-town Iowa, as well as the number of viewpoints that were represented. Some people loved the town; one woman never felt like she fit in; some men and women are happy and fulfilled in their families; some are lonely; many have suffered terrible injuries, hardships, and the deaths of either their (too-young) parents or children. I'll just share one quote, because you simply must go and read this book yourself:
Bob Tandy: "I still get a lot of grief for having a college degree. My family is proud on one hand, but it's really not talked about because it makes me different from my brothers and the extended clan. I wanted to get out of Oxford in the worst way...
Our first child, Britton Elise, died as an infant almost three years ago. The doctors believed she died of placental abruption, which is a Latin term for Bad Fucking Luck. For six days my daughter lived in the hospital. She got to meet all of her cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and two great-grandmas...
That's Oxford. People have family feuds. They bitch. But when the shit hits the fan, people who on Wednesday were pissing and moaning, they'll be helping each other get through whatever you need them for. Then by Friday they'll be calling each other assholes again." (p. 30.)