Picture Show: The Oxford Project

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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.

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.”

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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.

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Read more and see the slideshow at NPR: The Oxford Project.

NPR / Picture Show / Published: May 29, 2009
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