Once an important destination along the Oregon Trail, the city – which has a population of 300 – has fallen on hard times and is struggling to hold onto its history
On a hot day in the summer of 2013, Jon Horvath was driving through the desert in Idaho when he saw an exit sign for a city called Bliss. Intrigued by the name, and suspecting it would likely be hyperbole, he pulled off the highway and entered the one mile stretch of dusty road that makes up the small city.
Upon parking his car, he immediately found himself face-to-face with one of the locals. The two struck up conversation and in a short space of time Horvath was given the history of the town, including its current population: 300 people.
“After we parted ways, I walked the town with my camera for a bit, made some preliminary pictures, and left feeling like I needed to come back one day,” he recalls. “The following year, in 2014, I did just that, arriving with more earnest intentions and the self-assigned directive of ‘pursuing a deeper understanding of happiness’ – whatever that may look like – as influenced by the residents of Bliss.”
Horvath’s return to the town marked the beginning of a new photographic series and now book, titled This Is Bliss. The photographer describes it as “a trans-media narrative project investigating the vanishing roadside geography and culture of a rural Idaho town”.
Composed of portraits, landscapes, still-life shots, literary extracts and scans, the project positions Bliss as a surreal, self-mythologising place that is uniquely its own. But it also depicts it as a typical backwater town in the American West – one that fits into “a larger story about American mythology, Manifest Destiny, and pursuits of American idealism”.
On a micro level, Horvath documents the residents of the city in an attempt to understand “how they might pursue a condition [of bliss]”. He captures the city’s “gatekeepers of happiness”: the pastor of Bliss Community Church, the bartender at Bliss Saloon (known locally as ‘Cndrlla’ – because “that’s how many letters could fit on her licence plate”), the school’s prom king and queen, and another resident who calls himself ‘The Prince of Bliss’. “I loved that this small town of 300 had built for itself its own local mythology, complete with a prince, a Cinderella, an adventurer, and so many others,” says Horvath.
Beyond these pensive portraits of the town’s residents, the series also examines Bliss against the expansive backdrop of American history, and the nation’s own deeply-rooted mythology, and it is through this lens that we sense a bitter irony.
Geographically, Bliss is close to many areas and routes that were once integral to the American pioneers that expanded westward in the 19th century, including the Oregon Trail and the Snake River, yet the once prominent railroad town has been in economic and cultural decline since the construction of the interstate system.
The westward search for land and riches left in its wake many small settlements like Bliss that have gradually faded into obscurity, fated to become indistinguishable from one another and to function as mere stop-offs for the occasional weary traveller.
Speaking on its future, Horvath says “I haven’t physically been to the town since the summer of 2016, but from what I gather from remaining residents, some clear homogenisation is taking hold that seems to be in line with a lot of recent development in the rural US. My fear is that the history will be obscured even further than it already has been, leaving Bliss feeling like every other place.”
This Is Bliss by Jon Horvath is published by Yoffy Press.
Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.