Bliss – When John Horvath saw a highway sign pointing in the direction of Bliss, he followed it.
The Wisconsin-based photographer was in need of some bliss, a little happiness, after a relationship ended in late summer 2013 and was going through a self-described “reboot” when he found himself on a road trip cutting through southern Idaho.
The name intrigued Horvath, and his curiosity led him toward the small community west of Twin Falls.
“That (name) was enough to prompt me to get off the highway to see what happiness might look like in the middle of the desert,” he recalls.
Like many motorists, Horvath could quickly fart his car and roll down the road, forgetting the small detour at speed.
Instead, he went back to taking pictures and talking to people.
His first images of deteriorating buildings and open spaces were just the beginning. He dug deeper and, after making five visits there from 2014 and 2016, has a book out in June, which he describes on Amazon as “a narrative transmedia project that investigates vanishing roadside geography and culture in a rural Idaho town called Bliss.”
He took pictures of small graves, of parts from a large military plane that crashed near the town in 1995. He pointed his camera at flowers and dogs and prom kings, each image slowly unraveling more layers about Bliss. At the end of the book, he writes an essay loosely based on his experiences.
Detailed work does not follow the traditional documentary style.
CNN reported that “Instead, black-and-white photographs and color film, tint-types, archival images, ephemera and Bliss-scanned objects form a sort of dreamlike time capsule.”
The photograph on the cover of the 280-page paperback shows Bliss resident Buck Hall’s reflection in his car. Hall, who died in 2021, explained to Horvath on his first visit that Bliss had had glorious years.
Longtime residents remember when Bliss had nine gas stations, six restaurants and was a popular stopping point between Boise and Burley, before the highway was built decades ago, greatly reducing the number of commuters coming through town.
With the help of a “brilliant” publisher and designer, he said, “the book came to life.”
“I loved the time I had at Bliss,” said Horvath, who lives in Milwaukee. “It is a community that has allowed me to rediscover myself in a life-changing moment. Bliss will always be in touch with that moment for me.”
The locals told Horvath that Bliss was young and that she was getting even smaller. The 2020 census is expected to show a population of 258, down 18% from 318 in 2010.
But while they saw that their city was not growing, the inhabitants showed Horvath the size of the city’s heart.
“They got me into their homes to take pictures; they took me on an adventure, always with great enthusiasm.” “That’s one of the special aspects of ‘This Is Bliss’ for me; many of those moments have led to the creation of works that hopefully honor their generosity in some small way.”
Horvath’s last visit to Bliss was in 2016, and his project was wrapping up when the announcement of Loew’s Truck Stop, which has brought new jobs and new life to the town, was announced.
Regardless, the project’s narrative about small communities puts Bliss in a position to represent many other places in small-town America, he said.
Horvath said, “I hope that everyone who goes through the book will come away with a meaningful experience, and perhaps a new lens through which to view these smaller communities in the West.”
“I don’t expect to return for the residency, but I will be a frequent visitor when in the area,” said Horvath.
Horvath’s book can be purchased from the website yoffypress.com/catalog/bliss.