Time and Again

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

In the four decades he's lived in the farm town of Oxford, Iowa (population 705), Peter Feldstein, 66, has remained something of an outsider. If you weren't born there, you are eternally regarded as a newcomer by people who go back several generations. He was originally from New York, an artist, and for a long time, the town's only Jew. He taught in the art department at the University of Iowa, which is 16 miles away. · Often it felt as though Oxford and the huge campus were hundreds of miles apart. Feldstein bought two empty storefronts in downtown Oxford and restored them as studio space. · In the spring of 1984, for reasons he's not quite sure of, Feldstein decided to make a black-and-white portrait of each of his neighbors -- everyone then living in Oxford, which at the time was 693 people. · He wrote them each a letter asking them to drop by, and to dress " 'as you are,' not as you might look in your Sunday best." They obliged, almost all of them, from babies to senior citizens. Once all the pictures were done and arranged on foam display boards, there was a barbecue at the American Legion hall, the people of Oxford came and politely regarded themselves, and then the pictures and negatives were put away.

Stephen G. Bloom, 57, a journalism professor at Iowa, arrived at the university in 1993 and struck up a friendship with Feldstein, and visits him often in Oxford. The subject of Feldstein's photographic census came up now and again. Bloom saw some of the photos and encouraged Feldstein to think about doing it again -- take portraits of as many of the same people as possible. If they were still living in Oxford, if they were still alive.

In 2005, Feldstein started shooting again, just a few people at first, and compared the results, then and now. Bloom was drawn to the pair of photos of Don Saxton, who was mayor when the first pictures were made and is mayor still. Saxton had aged a little, and had put on perhaps 10 pounds. His watch in both pictures sits midway between his wrist and elbow.

"Pat Henkelman is wearing the exact same shoes," Feldstein says. "I'm sure she bought new ones. . . . [Bloom's] jaw just dropped when he saw them and he said I had to do everyone. I thought, 'What's new that can be brought to these?' Well, they all have some pretty interesting stories to tell . . ."

Bloom got on board. Over the next two years, Feldstein took photos of 100 people in Oxford who'd posed for him in 1984, and Bloom interviewed them, providing biographical text to what became "The Oxford Project," a new book released in September.

Here are the people of Oxford, paired with themselves in an eerie and beautiful reckoning with the past. Like any Americans, they've known happiness and quiet sadness -- which they talk about in interviews with Bloom (which he then "shrink-wrapped" into concise paragraphs and showed to each participant for his or her approval). "Some of it, to my ear, just sounds like pure poetry," Bloom says, as when one woman told him she'd met her husband " 'Playing euchre at the Legion hall.' I just love the sound those words make, playing euchre at the Legion hall."

But this project is not precious. It is stark, almost to a point of severity. It is the Iowa that certain reporters try to bring to life every primary season in an election year, and of course fail to exactly portray while writing on the fly. Some have seen "The Oxford Project" and are reminded of the work of Studs Terkel or Mike Disfarmer. Alone, Feldstein's photographs have the allure, if not the technical quality, of August Sander's portraits of everyday Germans in the 1920s: People don't get much more real than this, and there's a heartbreaking, forensic pleasure in paging through the book to stare at the pictures for minutes at a time, looking at the thousands of ways in which the years change each of us. The first time Feldstein made pictures, there was no text, and he never pursued anything like a book or an exhibition.

With Bloom's text, the people of Oxford come alive, worthy of a Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange FSA study. They speak of trips they've taken to Las Vegas, or the comforts and limitations of life in small towns; they speak of those who've died (or fled) and people who've been born, and of the particular, almost compulsive joys, such as keeping dirt off all-terrain vehicles. "I had the world by the ass in those days," remarks Tim Hennes, at 46, regarding the picture of his strapping self at 21.

What has changed? The population of Oxford is still almost completely white. The median age has gone from 29 to almost 36. The median family income is $48,750 a year now (it was $19,050 in 1984). Median house value tops $86,300, an increase of $53,000.

More subtly, the eye picks up on clues that Oxford is not as far away from the big college town of Iowa City as it used to be. (Claim to fame: Ashton Kutcher, the movie star, has roots in these parts, and family in Oxford.) You can see a homogenizing effect in today's Oxford in some of the clothes, and sense it in some of the references to chain stores and restaurants -- Oxford, meet exurbia.

And yet, Feldstein says, the town remains for its inhabitants a world apart, and it remained his home even after he retired from the university, and these are his people, and he knows them now better than he ever did. "I love to gossip," he says.

Bloom, even more of an outsider, helpfully included a list of "Oxford Truisms" he gleaned in 100 interviews:

"Everyone has the same no-fail pie crust recipe, but no one can remember where it came from. . . . The names Grabin, Jiras, Hennes and Portwood are as common in Oxford as Garcia, Lee, Chen and Cohen are in big cities. . . . Pliers and pocketknives are necessary tools; many men won't leave home without them. . . . When someone dies in Oxford, big funerals are expected, as are casseroles."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company