13 November 2009

The Oxford Project

Peter Feldstein photographed all 600 residents of Oxford, Iowa, in 1984. In 2007, he went back and photographed his subjects again, at least, the ones who were still alive and willing. The second time, a writer went along with him to interview the subjects. Their stories appear between the '84 and '07 portraits, a tryptich of time past, time recalled and present time.

You find out, for example, that this man was a buckskinner, some kind of alternative lifestyle where you lived as in the olden days, hunting with muzzle loader guns, fishing, skinning animals. He was born again and became a preacher. He has visions of demons and angels. He wrestled a demon once in a hotel room, a literal demon with horns. He also preaches on a public access TV.

It's moving and not a little frightening to see how time wears on people, mangling them, twisting them, and in some cases, purifying them -- making them more individual. (Before, of course, it obliterates them and us into anonymous molecules).


This guy's 38. On the left, you see him as a rodeo star. Now, he says, getting up is like warming up an old car. It takes time to get everything moving again.

The first time, Feldstein only used one shot to capture each person. This lead to happy/spooky accidents that make many of the earlier portrait that much more effective. One set is told by a man who was an infant in the first picture. You see him held by a large, bearded guy, but the man's face is blurred, just as his face must be slightly blurred in the memory of that son who was too young to form much more of a memory of him beyond a voice, a smell and the feel of his beard.

It's currently showing at the Belger space, in Kansas City where I saw it.

The show reminds me of one of my favorite books, Winesburg, Ohio, a series of linked short stories that make up a novel by Sherwood Anderson. One of the themes of the book is the secret and surprising interior lives the characters have -- it's set in a small town, a town like Oxford, probably. You'd think the stories would be banal. Each character, though, has a rich or surprising secret life. Among the 25 people shown you meet in the Oxford Project are: a lesbian, a mystic, a rodeo star, a vet who liberated Buchenwald, a Vietnam veteran, a devout Buddhist, and some more ordinary men and women.

In some respects, it's much like Michael Apted's documentary series 7-Up, where you meet a set of people at distinct moments in their lives. Only this is compressed: a moment, a short bit of narrative, a second moment. It gives you the chance to contemplate, to wonder, and to fill in the blanks. To shake your head, once more, at the ceaseless noise of time.

Check out the Smithsonian Magazine article.

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