"When I was 10, my dad died."
The words are Ben Stoker's. In a photograph to the left, he's a baby. A man, presumably the long-dead father, holds him out for the camera, turning the child's head awkwardly so the photographer can see the baby's face. The kid is dressed in a onesie and white shoes. Most striking about the father are his mottled arms, pocked as if by cigarette burns or fast-food restaurant grease. His face is a blur; we can see that he wears glasses, a beard and curly 1980s hair. The text accompanying this photo suggests that, 21 years later, Stoker's memory of this man is probably a blur, too. In a photo on the right, Stoker has grown up, but he's basically wearing the same outfit, the equivalent of a young man's baby clothes: a backward ball cap and a skewed expression — as if his father's thumb is still pressing into his face — and a white T-shirt, saggy gym shorts and completely fucked-up once-white tennis shoes.
"A lot of people don't like small towns because they're so tight-knit," reads the text. "But that's what makes them so great. You know who's sleeping with whom, but when your mother dies, you know there'll be twenty-eight people at your door with casseroles."
"Ben Stoker 1984-2005" is likely the first piece that viewers will see in The Oxford Project at the Belger Arts Center. If not for its deep intrigue, this might have been a gimmick: In 1984, University of Iowa Professor Peter Feldstein photographed 670 of the people who lived in his (very white) hometown of Oxford, Iowa, total population 676. In 2005, he took new portraits of all the same people, in basically the same poses. Stephen Bloom, a journalism professor also at the University of Iowa, interviewed many of the subjects for the text that intervenes between the before-and-after images.
The text itself is mesmerizing. Bloom boils down entire life stories, capturing the reticent tone of matter-of-fact Midwesterners who say, "Jesus died to suffer for our sins" in the same way they say, "There used to be a hat store in town."
A couple of themes emerge from these stories. The first is that life is goddamned hard. One room is devoted entirely to the Hoyt family, whose patriarch, Jim Hoyt, was one of the first four soldiers to liberate Buchenwald ("There were thousands of bodies piled high"); his wife, Doris Hoyt, who has come to accept that her son with HIV is gay; and another son, Jim Jr., a Vietnam vet with PTSD who's a janitor at J.C. Penney. Elsewhere, we read that Holly Stopko has panic attacks. And that Pat Henkelman's husband left her, after 45 years of marriage, for a younger woman he had met while playing euchre at the legion hall. And that maggots disturb Marty Jiras as he works his part-time job collecting deer carcasses on county roads. And that Kathy Tandy, at 432 pounds, used to be so big that "Bob Cochran had to weigh me on the livestock scale down at the sale barn."
It's also clear that there's no such thing as normal, no matter what sort of assumptions anyone makes about mid-America. Some of these people are freaks, but Feldstein and Bloom treat everyone with respect. One was left at a church by her carny mom and endured life in a fanatically religious foster home. Hanging across the room is a different foster mother, Blanche Smith, in a Halloween sweatshirt and blue-jean pedal pushers. She claims to have taken in 500 kids. "You turn their values around," Smith says. "For some, it works. For others, it don't." The abandoned carny baby, meanwhile, now lives with the fathers of her two children and a third man. "Nothing for me has been normal," says this woman, who now goes by the name Brianne Leckness, "so why should now be normal?" Except that Leckness looks normal. As a kid with bows in her hair or as a heavyset grown-up in tasteful black slacks and a V-neck, she has the same dimply smile, the same stiff posture that suggests a good girl at heart.
That's the theme that emerges from the photographs, apart from the text: People don't change. They learn lessons, quit drinking, find God, grow wrinkled and fragile; the emotional impact of Pat Henkelman's husband leaving her after 45 years shows in her caved-in stance. But their essential natures remain the same — that's obvious in the way people slouch or dangle their hands or keep the same mustache for 20 years. In Feldstein's photographs, people's eyes show us what older and wiser really looks like.
Editor's note: This review has been corrected from its original version.