The premise of The Oxford Project is simple, and I suspect it’s one that you’ll either get or really not get. In 1984, Peter Feldstein photographed every resident of Oxford, Iowa (I can’t recall if he ended up photographing every single resident, but if not it was extremely close). The photographs are simple and stark, with people rarely posing but just standing frankly in front of the camera. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a bicycle, a baby, a gun, a lion. In 2004, he went back to photograph them all again. This time he took Stephen G. Bloom and got brief descriptions from his subjects – everything from their history in Oxford to their family stories to their favorite recipes to their hobbies to their tragedies to their politics. The guy from three pages ago is bitching about the other guy. You hear two sides to the same story. Babies were now adults. Many people were now widows or widowers. Some people stood and/or dressed disarmingly similarly to how they did 20 years before. Feldstein uses more or less the same photographic approach.
For a certain sort of person, it’s an endlessly fascinating concept. I am definitely that sort of person. Some of the stories do get repetitive – it’s a hefty book. My biggest hesitation about The Oxford Project is whether it was exploitative at all. It certainly seems that the residents of Oxford knew why they were being photographed, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they may not fully understand the culture of the people who would be reading their stories – there were moments when it veered a little too close to Simple Folk Voyeurism. The stories – which are undoubtedly edited for brevity and clarity – sometimes come across as plain-spoken to the point of surreal, with people seemingly plunking down homespun wisdom followed by an out of the blue statement that cream of mushroom casserole is their favorite recipe. I don’t doubt that the people in question said what they said, but at times it felt like the way it was edited was a little condescending. I’d give it 3.5 stars, but I’m rounding up to 4 because if there’s an ethical issue it’s minor, and it’s a truly novel concept, as far as I’m aware.