I won’t lie: The Oxford Project appealed to me initially for two reasons. First, I heard about it because it received an Alex award from the American Library Association this year, and second, upon researching the title following that nugget of information, I found out it was set in a town about 30 minutes southwest from where I went to college.
Bloom and Feldstein’s book is a non-fiction photographic exploration of one Iowa town over a generation. Feldstein began the project by taking photos of nearly all 600 residents in 1984. His goal was to capture each of them in their natural state — no fancy clothes, no fancy make up. These photos were put on display in town and turned out to be quite a neat feature for the downtown area and its citizens. Once the exhibits were finished, Feldstein put the project to bed.
A two decades later, Feldstein thought it would be interesting to take their photos again, but this time also ask them about their lives: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sweet. He and Bloom teamed up for this aspect, and both were incredibly surprised with how honest and forthcoming the citizens of Oxford would be with them.
The Oxford Project is a series of photographs, the original beside the new, as well as a series of vignettes that are a glipse into the lives of the individuals that make up one small town. The stories are raw and are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. There are similar threads running through many of the stories, including the value of working hard, the value of being a good person, and the regret for many who did not attend college (not surprising, as the University of Iowa is a mere 10 miles from Oxford).
This is a very unique book that gives great insight into humanity, into the way our lives change both by choice and by accident, and into how a city can become such a part of who we are as people. For a non-fiction book, this one is engaging because it is steeped heavily into the visual images of ordinary people. I think the American Library Association is spot on with this as an Alex winning title — I would not hesistate to hand this book to a student needing to do a report on a non-fiction book. There will be a story that resonates with each reader, who can see a bit of themselves in each of the people featured in the book. It’s hard to build a book that combines both an artistic vision and a powerful story, but I think that Bloom and Feldstein do a fantastic job of this with The Oxford Project.
If you’re interested in reading it and are on a very, very long waiting list for the book like I have been, be sure to check out the website promoting the book and project here. I’m impressed with not only the project, but the notes the author and photographer include about the lessons they learned in undertaking such a task, including lessons on history and preservation. I almost think their author notes — which are sparse and come only at the beginning and end of the book — are just as worthy of thinking about as the rest of the book.