Small town of Bliss, Idaho is ‘disappearing’ — photographer created capsule of life there – CNN | Episode Movies

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The small town of Bliss, Idaho is “disappearing” – a photographer has created a capsule of life there

Photographer Jon Horvath first visited Bliss by accident, but he was fascinated by the small, remote desert town.

Bliss, Idaho is nestled on the curve of Interstate 84, which curves around the small, rural town on its way north to the state capital of Boise, about 85 miles away. When Milwaukee-based photographer Jon Horvath first visited Bliss in late summer 2013, he was on a winding road trip after a relationship ended. About 300 people lived there at the time, supported by a small parish church, a K-12 public school, a diner, a post office, gas stations, motels, and two bars.

“If you find yourself there … it’s probably just to fill up your gas tank, maybe grab a quick meal at the diner, but that’s probably about it,” Horvath explained in a phone call.

Buck Hall, a Bliss resident, told Horvath on his first visit that the town once saw more regular visitors, but that construction of the Interstate decades ago shifted traffic, the photographer recalled. Once a place of passage, Bliss became a place of passage—a touch of irony on an exit sign.

In the desert south of Bliss, Horvath spotted local workers next to a road that had burning bushes that had accumulated over the winter. “I was drawn to how the act of clearing and regenerating reflected some of the larger themes of the project,” Horvath said. Recognition: Jon Horvath

Horvath wove photos of found arrows (shown here on a road to White Arrow Ranch, a private resort north of Bliss) throughout the book to represent a sense of direction - or misdirection.

Horvath wove photos of found arrows (shown here on a road to White Arrow Ranch, a private resort north of Bliss) throughout the book to represent a sense of direction – or misdirection. Recognition: Jon Horvath

Oscar, a resident of Bliss Country Park, an RV park and trailer community whom Horvath met briefly through a local pastor.

Oscar, a resident of Bliss Country Park, an RV park and trailer community whom Horvath met briefly through a local pastor. Recognition: Jon Horvath

“(Hall) summed up the state of the city,” Horvath recalled of that early conversation. “His words were, ‘We’re a town of 300 people and 299 when I die.’ (Since Horvath’s photos of Bliss, a new truck stop has brought additional jobs to the town, but the 2020 census shows the population is now just over 250. Buck Hall died in 2021 at the age of 75.)

Horvath’s first images of Bliss only scratched the surface — he captured the expected images of decaying or empty spaces that contrasted with the city’s name, he explained — but as he returned over the course of the three years, he felt off attracted to the people he met there and their stories took shape into a more complex work.

Local resident Jarad was photographed hunting coyotes and shows Horvath his gun.

Local resident Jarad was photographed hunting coyotes and shows Horvath his gun. Recognition: Jon Horvath

A dog named Fruit Snacks in the Outlaws and Angel saloon. "I had a brief encounter with the owner of FS who wanted to show me the dog's ground teeth," explained Horvath.

A dog named Fruit Snacks in the Outlaws and Angel saloon. “I had a brief encounter with the owner of FS, who wanted to show me the dog’s ground teeth,” says Horvath. Recognition: Jon Horvath

In 1995, a C-130 Hercules transport plane crashed in the desert near Bliss, killing six people. "I was taken to the crash site by an Idaho state official and he informed me that visitors will come and collect loose parts as a gesture of remembrance." Horvath told of a photo composition of remains he had collected.

In 1995, a C-130 Hercules transport plane crashed in the desert near Bliss, killing six people. “I was escorted to the crash site by an Idaho state official and he informed me that visitors will be coming and collecting loose parts as a gesture of remembrance,” Horvath explained of a photocomposite of remains he had collected. Recognition: Jon Horvath

Now a book entitled This is Bliss, Horvath’s work does not follow a traditional documentary record of a place. Instead, Bliss’ black and white and color film photographs, tintypes, archive images, ephemera and scanned objects form a kind of dreamlike time capsule.

During his time there, Horvath found a different way of telling a story about the American West. Rather than the sprawling photographic explorations of the region captured by photographers like Robert Adams or Stephen Shore, This is Bliss mainly encompasses a small area – about a mile wide – to which Horvath kept returning, peeling away the city’s layers.

Horvath met Eldon Thompson (pictured far right), who was introduced to him as the "oldest remaining resident in Bliss," in 2014. "I met him at a local cemetery where he was watering flowers he had placed on his own grave," recalls Horvath.  Thompson has passed away since Horvath's last visit to the city.

Horvath met Eldon Thompson (pictured far right), who was introduced to him in 2014 as “the oldest remaining resident of Bliss.” “I met him at a local cemetery, where he was watering flowers that he had placed on his own grave,” recalls Horvath. Thompson has passed away since Horvath’s last visit to the city. Recognition: Jon Horvath

Bliss prom queen and king Jessica and Brandon photographed in their school's gymnasium in 2014.

Bliss prom queen and king Jessica and Brandon photographed in their school’s gymnasium in 2014. Recognition: Jon Horvath

“The work has a macro level that looks at a longer, deeper history of the region,” Horvath said, “and at some of the stories we tell about ourselves as Americans.”

Bliss might be a small speck on the map, but it’s been part of much bigger stories: It’s on the Oregon Trail, a thoroughfare for settlers to expand west during the onslaught of Manifest Destiny. It’s near where stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel famously attempted (and failed) to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974, Horvath pointed out. And it was later the home of author JD Salinger’s friend Holden Bowler, after whom Salinger’s famous Catcher in the Rye protagonist Holden Caulfield was named.

“There’s all these myth-forming events in our own history that have (have) some presence in this city,” Horvath said.

But there is also what Horvath calls a ‘micro-line’ in the narrative, from the lives of the residents to his own ‘quest to rediscover what ‘happiness’ might be’. He added, “A mythology exists there too … my arrival in the city coincided with a fresh start in my own life.”

Working to capture a sense of the place and mood surrounding Bliss, Horvath was drawn to this scene between two trucks for its visual illusion.

Working to capture a sense of the place and mood surrounding Bliss, Horvath was drawn to this scene between two trucks for its visual illusion. Recognition: Jon Horvath

At White Arrow Ranch, owner Ron hand-built the farm's infrastructure, Horvath said.

At White Arrow Ranch, owner Ron hand-built the farm’s infrastructure, Horvath said. Recognition: Jon Horvath

Some of his experiences at Bliss feel like fiction, Horvath said — like the time he was served by a bartender named Cinderella. Hall once instructed him to drive to a cliff by moonlight, and he would find a rock formation that local legend has preserved as the rugged profile of a Native American chief; Horvath did it and snapped a picture that accompanies the book as a self-printed postcard.

On one visit, he drove to a nearby burial site with just six burial sites, marked by crooked white wooden crosses and a faded sign that read “Chinese Memorial Cemetery.” A historical pamphlet Horvath bought at a local gas station claims that the properties contain the bodies of 16 itinerant railroad workers who died in an 1883 explosion and were buried together, although this total number is disputed.
A roadside memorial for the victims of a car accident.  Horvath said a waitress at the Oxbow Cafe recommended he photograph the place because the victims of the crash were her high school friends.

A roadside memorial for the victims of a car accident. Horvath said a waitress at the Oxbow Cafe recommended he photograph the place because the victims of the crash were her high school friends. Recognition: Jon Horvath

All of our stories and memories shape a place, however imperfect they may be. Horvath is not a historian, and in collecting anecdotes and records about Bliss, he said he accepts them all, fact checked or not, as part of the city archives. “I loved the idea that I would meet Buck Hall on the side of the road and he would tell me stories,” he added. “Are they true? Aren’t they true? Maybe that would matter in another universe.”

Appropriately, at the end of This is Bliss, Horvath wrote a short story loosely based on his experiences there.

“Either we embellish, or we take liberties, or we bring some of our invention to them,” he said.

This is bliss,” published by Yoffy Press and FW:Books, is available now.

Picture above: Buck Hall reflected in the hood of Horvath’s car.

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