Small Town, U.S.A. -- One Face at a Time

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This small town of about 700 people is like a lot of other small towns in the Midwest -- a main street, old buildings and generations of families who've lived their lives there.

But one day, two decades ago, a stranger came to town.

"There was something about the people in this town that just struck me as different," said that stranger, Peter Feldstein, an artist from New York who moved to Oxford in the 1980s and decided to take pictures of the people around him.

"I did it on a lark," he said. "I had this idea that I could photograph everybody in this town."

He didn't get everybody, but he came pretty close: The town babies, kids, parents, veterans -- they all were there. But while the Oxford project was a big hit, gradually Feldstein set it aside and his neighbors did, too.

Until he did it again with the same cast of characters -- two decades later.

"It's definitely a whole lifetime in pictures," said Ben Stoker, one of the photo subjects, who originally was photographed as an infant. "It's pretty cool to see how people have changed in a lot of ways."

Several of Feldstein's then-and-now portraits can be viewed online at http://oxfordproject.com/ (click here to view them).

While the old and new photos are separated now by text that sheds light on the intervening years, it is the faces that tell the stories, the tragedies and triumphs of life in a small town.

"Sometimes I wish I would have spread my wings and flew out for awhile," said one subject, Patty Hackathorn. "But I think even if I did I would have always come back to Oxford."

"I like my life," said another subject, Mindy Portwood. "I've had a good life. I really wouldn't go back and change anything. … I'm not a real big fan of change. … Yeah, I like the status quo."

Don Saxton was, and still is, the mayor of Oxford.

"We all change over a period of 20-plus years too," he said. "But I guess it's just more noticeable with some than others."

Iowa Honn -- yes, that's her name -- now 96, has aged gracefully.

"I'm old," she said, "but I'm awfully tough."

Feldstein hopes each photo explains something about the individual, something that may have been hard for them to articulate.

"This isn't about looking pretty," he said. "This is about who you are. The truth comes out."

Before the project, his neighbors didn't know their mailman was in the Battle of the Bulge and had liberated the Buchenwald death camp. In the photos, you can see the emotional toll it took. Jim Hoyt's face says it all.

"It doesn't go away," Hoyt said. "Dreams in particular."

Hoyt said he decided to live in Oxford all these years "because I liked it." And in a time of increasing transience in this country, what is striking about Hoyt and all the others is their desire to stay put and to grow roots in the fertile Iowa soil.

Thanks to a man with a camera you can see that on their faces, in their eyes -- almost all the way to their souls.

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