- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

OXFORD, Iowa — At first, John Honn felt like so many of his neighbors — a tad suspicious when Peter Feldstein announced his plan to photograph all 676 residents in town.

For some, like Tim Hennes, there was also a reluctance to take part in the “artsy” ventures of Mr. Feldstein, who despite having lived in Oxford for six years was by some accounts still a newcomer.

Yet there they are, part of a collection of friends, neighbors, relatives, classmates, lovers and ex-lovers, colleagues, drinking buddies and quilting partners, each frozen in an insignificant instant of their lives more than 20 years ago in black and white.

Mr. Honn, a buckskinner by trade at the time, seems poised to wrestle bear: With his unruly beard, dressed in frontier-style shirt, pants and moccasins, his right hand clutches the barrel of a shotgun that stands upright by his side.

Mr. Hennes, 21 when photographed, stands with only a hint of smile on his face in cut-off jeans and a worn T-shirt, his left hand clasping his right wrist at the waist.

“I don’t remember exactly why I finally went down to the studio that day, other than I think I felt it had become some sense of obligation because Peter was so persistent,” Mr. Hennes says.

At the time, not even Mr. Feldstein — who snapped portraits of 670 residents of this eastern Iowa town that summer — knew what to think or do with his work. After a brief exhibition at the American Legion Hall, Mr. Feldstein gathered up his prints and stashed the negatives in storage.

“I had no intention of ever coming back and doing this again,” says Mr. Feldstein, who retired last year after teaching photography at the University of Iowa for 32 years.

Now, more than two decades later, he is tracking down anyone who hasn’t died, moved or been sent to jail for another round of portraits.

The same rules apply. Subjects wear what they want. Each stands on the same sidewalk square fronting a plaster wall on the side of Mr. Feldstein’s Main Street studio. None is posed. Smiles, gestures, expressions are optional. No one is allowed to peek at his or her original portrait before Mr. Feldstein shoots a new one.

So far, Mr. Feldstein has reshot about 60. Matched side-by-side, the portraits show the obvious signs of aging, maturity, weight gain and loss, graying hair. Babies and children have morphed into twentysomething nurses, truck drivers and teachers. But there is also evidence that some human traits and idiosyncrasies are impervious to time and change.

Don Saxton, the mayor then and now, still prefers striped, short sleeved shirts. In both portraits, Pat Henckleman tilts her head slightly left and reveals an enduring fondness for Docksiders. Jim Jirus still wears his seed corn hat cocked to the right.

In the current phase of his project, Mr. Feldstein has added a new twist, thanks to the help of friend Stephen Bloom, an author and journalism professor at the University of Iowa. Based on interviews, Mr. Bloom has crafted short narratives that lend a confessional, poetic and unvarnished dimension to the lives in Mr. Feldstein’s then-and-now portraits.

In their own words, Oxford residents share struggles with alcohol or abuse. Some recount romantic first encounters with spouses, their faith in God, displeasure with President Bush or, in the case of Jim Hoyt, the recurring nightmares from being one of the first four American soldiers to liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, Germany, during World War II.

Mr. Hennes, photographed again last summer, strikes a pose similar to his original, even down to the way he clasps his left hand over his right wrist at the waist. In his essay, he likens himself to George Bailey, James Stewart’s character in the movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and shares how his dream of getting out of Oxford to attend college in Hawaii was forever altered by one simple act.

“On the way home one day, I stopped at Slim’s, and that’s where I met Robin. Today we have two girls, ages 16 and 13. I’ve been on the Oxford City Council for eight years, and now I’m on my second term on the school board. That trip to Hawaii was my ticket out,” he says.

Mr. Honn, now a Pentecostal minister, was photographed in 2005 wearing a blue blazer, dress pants and tie, his beard neatly trimmed; he holds a Bible in his left hand. “I’ve seen devils, demons, and angels,” Mr. Honn says In the essay. “I once had a demon come to my bedroom. His face was a silver outline. I rassled with him on the bed.”

Mr. Feldstein says he is particularly fond of the images and intimate tale of Ben Stoker.

When he was first photographed in 1984, Mr. Stoker is just weeks old, cradled in the arms of his father. In the portrait taken last summer, Mr. Stoker, in a T-shirt, long baggy shorts and a baseball cap worn backward, creases a slight smile, his hands clasped behind his back.

“When I was 10, the man holding me — my dad — died,” reads Mr. Stoker’s narrative. “Pretty much I think of my dad every day. I remember feeling his beard against my face as a little boy. Two years ago, when I was 19, my mother died of cancer. She was my guiding light. I’d be a liar if I said that everything is all right.”

Like the people captured by Mr. Feldstein’s camera, the last 20 years have also brought change to Oxford, which hosted more than 4,000 people in 1948 when President Truman made it one of several whistle-stops during his re-election campaign.

Located about 15 miles west of Iowa City, Oxford has grown to 725, its growth evident mainly in the new subdivisions and the commuters who live there.

Gone are the multiple grocery stores, hardware store and downtown diners, victims of the crash in the farm economy of the 1980s. A violent storm in 1998 wiped out a swath of old growth trees that shaded homes along its quiet streets. It’s reputation as an outlaw, rough-and-tumble town has softened with the closure of a handful of taverns.

But as much as the project documents changes in Oxford and its inhabitants, Mr. Feldstein acknowledges that his work has caused a personal transformation.

“Because of this second time around, I’ve really come to realize that I love the people of this town,” he says. “I’m seeing a goodness and a kindness in a lot of people that I didn’t expect it from.”

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