BLISS — When Jon 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 an end of a relationship in late summer of 2013 and was going through a self-described “restart” as he found himself on a road trip cutting through southern Idaho .
The name intrigued Horvath, and his curiosity steered him towards the small community west of Twin Falls.
“That (the name) was enough to prompt an exit from the interstate to see what happiness might look like in the middle of the desert,” he recalled.
Like so many motorists, Horvath could have quickly gassed up his car and moved on down the road, quickly forgetting the small detour.
Instead, he returned to snapping pictures and talking to people.
His first images of deteriorating buildings and open spaces were just a start. He dug deeper, and after making five visits there from 2014 and 2016, he has a book that came out in June, described on Amazon as “a transmedia narrative project investigating the vanishing roadside geography and culture of a rural Idaho town named Bliss.”
He took photos of small gravesites, of pieces from a large military plane that crashed near the town in 1995. He pointed his camera at flowers, dogs and prom kings, and each photo slowly unpeeled more layers about Bliss. At the end of the book, he wrote an article loosely based on his experiences.
The detailed work does not follow a traditional documentary style.
“Instead, black-and-white and color film photographs, tintypes, archival images, ephemera and scanned objects from Bliss form a sort of dreamlike time capsule,” CNN reported.
The photo on the 280-page book’s paperbook cover shows Bliss resident Buck Hall’s reflection on his car. Hall, who died in 2021, explained to Horvath on his first visit that Bliss once had glory years.
Longtime residents remember when Bliss had nine gas stations, six restaurants and was a popular stopping point between Boise and Burley, before the construction of the interstate decades ago dramatically reduced the number of travelers coming through town.
With the help of a publisher and a “brilliant” designer, “the book came to life,” he said.
“I loved my time in Bliss,” said Horvath, who lives in Milwaukee. “It is a community that allowed me to rediscover myself in a changing moment in my life. Bliss will always be connected to that moment for me.”
Local residents confided with Horvath that Bliss was small and only getting smaller. The 2020 Census is expected to show its population at 258 people, down 18% from 318 in 2010.
But while they saw their town wasn’t growing, residents showed Horvath how big of a heart the town has.
“They brought me into their homes for portraits; they took me on an adventure and always with great enthusiasm,” he said. “That is one of the special aspects of ‘This Is Bliss’ for me; many of those moments led to the creation of works that hopefully honored 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 Love’s truck stop was announced, which brought new jobs, and new life, to the town.
Regardless, the project’s narrative surrounding small communities put Bliss in a position to represent numerous other places in small-town America, he said.
“I hope that whoever moves through the book will come away with their own meaningful experience,” Horvath said, “and perhaps a new lens through which to view these smaller communities in the West.”
“I don’t anticipate returning to take up residency,” Horvath said, “but I will be a frequent visitor whenever I’m in the area.”
Horvath’s book can be purchased at yoffypress.com/catalog/bliss.