Sept. 8, 2008
'Oxford Project' debuts with September events in Oxford, Iowa City, Des Moines
When Peter Feldstein (photo, top) tacked a sign outside his studio offering to take free portraits, his only intention was to document his neighbors in the tiny town of Oxford, Iowa. When he decided to photograph the town again two decades later to see how folks had changed, he and writer Stephen Bloom became confessors.
A World War II veteran shared how he had liberated a concentration camp but never talked about it because the memories -- like discovering a lampshade made from tattooed human skin -- were so painful. A young woman confided that her parents abandoned her and her dog, Freddy, at a church when she was 3. A note pinned to her blouse read, "Please take care of her. We can't any longer." A plumber noted that he loves vacationing on nude beaches. A baker pondered the origin of her "no-fail pie crust."
The then-and-now photos, along with vignettes of 100 townspeople's lives, became "The Oxford Project," a book by retired University of Iowa Art Professor Feldstein, and Bloom (photo, bottom), the award-winning author of "Postville" and a journalism professor in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The book is to be published this month (Welcome Books, $50) and the creators are kicking off a tour with events in Des Moines, Oxford and Iowa City.
At 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 22, they'll visit the Des Moines Public Library, 1000 Grand Ave. The library will display some of the images Sept. 19 through Oct. 17.
Welcome Books will sponsor a potluck and book signing at noon Sunday, Sept. 28 at St. Mary's Hall, 133 E. Main St., Oxford, to celebrate the book's launch and the community that made it possible. Admission is $5. Partial proceeds will benefit The Oxford Project Scholarship Fund, administered by The Community Foundation of Johnson Country.
Prairie Lights will sponsor a theatrical presentation of "The Oxford Project" at 7 p.m. Sept. 28 at The Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City, followed by a book signing. Admission is $5, and partial proceeds will benefit Iowa Flood Relief.
The project earned praise from renowned filmmaker and producer Ken Burns, who said, "Powerful and confessional, 'The Oxford Project' draws its strength from the truth that so-called ordinary people are actually the heroes of our American drama." An accompanying exhibition will travel to China and Italy in 2009.
"I look at this book as a way to take the reader by the hand and say 'Come on, I'm going to take you to this tiny town of Oxford and introduce you to 100 people,'" Bloom said. "'Some have stories that are going to curl your hair, others have stories about the routine nature of their lives. But by the time you leave, you're going to have an understanding of what it's like to live in an American community at the turn of the 21st century.'"
Feldstein inadvertently launched the project in 1984, when he hung the sign at his studio and taped invitations to participate on every front door in town.
At first the community was skeptical.
But a few schoolchildren, then a handful of senior citizens walking to church, and finally a throng from the local Legion Hall wandered into his studio and got the ball rolling. A year later, nearly 700 people had stopped by to let him snap their photos. As instructed, they wore "whatever they'd wear on a Saturday."
"I wouldn't pose them," Feldstein said. "I had them step in front of the camera, I snapped their picture, and that was it. One shot. My intention was to make it as democratic as possible, not to editorialize."
When he was done, Feldstein decided to pursue other projects involving his artwork on environment and culture. He put the negatives in storage, never planning to take a second look at them.
Twenty years later, Bloom asked about the photos. He suggested that Feldstein catch up with people and photograph them again. As Feldstein photographed the community a second time and compared the photos side by side, the two professors were shocked by the similarities and differences in the portraits.
Some people stood in the exact same position, wearing the same shoes and wristwatches, and hadn't aged a bit. Others had changed dramatically, growing from goofy teens into attractive adults.
"Most people had lost hair. Many had gained weight," Bloom said. "But there were some young people who had really come into their own. Now they look mature, confident, almost jubilant. They show the fullness and bounty of their lives."
But pictures are only part of the story.
"Everybody has a story. My mother used to say everyone has their own 'tsuris,' which means troubles in Yiddish," Feldstein said. "I could see that in the people I was photographing. Everyone has crosses to bear."
So Bloom set out to interview 100 people in the town. He started with a template of questions, but by the third interview, he threw it away and simply said, "tell me your story." Interviews lasted anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours.
Residents shared quirky life details: owning pet mountain lions, why a farmer carries pliers and wears a hat everywhere, and how a man prepares for bowhunting by washing his clothes in dirt-scented detergent and dousing himself in buck urine. And, they opened up about serious matters like racism and infidelity.
"It's not the kind of thing you ask while you're sitting at the bakery over a cup of coffee," Bloom said. "You sort of need a stranger to elicit such intimate responses. And I found that in Oxford, what you see is what you get. I'm interested in the moment when lives pivot and change. Oxford people are good storytellers -- that to me is what helps give meaning to what you've done in life."
Maybe that's why Jim Hoyt finally shared his story. Hoyt, until his death in August, was the last living of the first four soldiers to liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. When he returned from the war, he kept the secret tightly sealed -- just like the letters he carried as a rural postal carrier. But when Bloom asked about his life, he brought it up:
"There were thousands of bodies piled high," Hoyt said. "I saw hearts that had been taken from live people in medical experiments ... Seeing these things, it changes you. I was a kid. Des Moines had been the furthest I'd ever been from home. I have posttraumatic-stress syndrome. I still have horrific dreams. Usually someone needs help and I can't help them ... I go to a group therapy session every week at the VA hospital and we talk about what each of us is going through ... If I had to do it over again, I would have pushed to be a psychologist -- if for no other reason than to understand myself better."
Hoyt kept the secret so well that although a statue had been erected in Buchenwald to honor the four American GIs, the artist and the benefactors were unable learn anything about Hoyt but his name. After he opened up during "The Oxford Project" and his obituary was carried by CNN, the benefactors got in touch with Feldstein, requesting photos of Hoyt for an archive and contact information for his family.
"It's a tiny town 18 miles west of Iowa City, but there are all these ripple effects of everyone's actions," Bloom said. "In many ways, this book isn't just about Oxford. It's about people -- life, loss and celebration."
NOTE TO MEDIA: Photos from the book are available and may be reprinted with credit. To view images available to the media, visit http://www.welcomebooks.com/alookinside/theoxfordproject/ For more information, contact Carol Morgan, director of publicity at Welcome Books, at 212-989-3200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
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