BILL OWENS PHOTOGRAPHS suburban, middle-class America. But what does he really think of suburbia? Does he dwell in the suburbs as an observer and pass judgment on his neighbors? Or, after forty years of immersing himself, has he embraced the lifestyle and become assimilated?
Bill Owens grew up on a farm near San Jose, California. In 1966, Owens returned from a stint in Jamaica serving in the Peace Corps set on becoming a photographer. Beginning in 1968, he worked for a local newspaper in Livermore, California, a suburb of San Francisco. While shooting local news stories, he developed the idea of a social documentary project that would examine suburban life. Raised a Quaker, Owens felt strongly that he wanted to improve the world, and one way he could do this was to document the excessive consumerism found in the suburbs. This documentary project became his successful book Suburbia, released in 1972.
In the seventies, Owens released several more books and freelanced for magazines but found he wasn’t able to support his family through photography. He viewed advertising work as selling out and wasn’t interested in losing control of his artistic vision. He instead turned to another interest, brewing beer, and opened brew pubs and published a magazine about beer making. He has only recently returned to photography, seemingly energized by the freedom offered by digital technology.
His new book, Bill Owens, is a survey of his career, from his early photojournalism covering chaos at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1968 through conceptual projects like Suburbia and Our Kind of People, a look at community organizations. The book also includes new digital color work from a cross-country photographic expedition as well as a recent continuation of his Suburbia project.
Owens is a master of locating interesting subjects in what many would consider mundane surroundings. One image from the Suburbia series shows a young man perched in the branches of a spindly, nearly bare tree, plucking the few remaining leaves while another man, perhaps his father, gathers a pile of leaves on the ground . The caption reads: “My dad thinks it’s a good idea to take all the leaves off the tree and rake up the yard. I think he’s crazy.”
Owens has a gentle, restrained sense of humor that shows in his image selection and the captions he chooses to accompany his photographs. His subjects are often smiling, a welcome relief from the blank faces common in today’s deadpan portraits. One of his images from Our Kind of People is a group portrait of the “Avon Bottle Club.” At the center of the group, a man stands proudly at attention, happy to lead his group of friends who “all have shelves full of Avon bottles.” These are ordinary people in what might be considered an ordinary photograph, but Owens’s sly sense of humor and eye for odd subjects makes his work more than straightforward documentary.
Owens’s sense of humor is still present in his most recent images, but other aspects of his work have changed. He has moved to a digital camera producing color images. Most of the older photographs in the book are portraits, while few of the newer images contain people. He now looks to objects, buildings, and landscapes to describe his environment.
While his environment has changed in the last forty years, it has also stayed the same. Owens still lives in the suburbs of San Francisco surrounded by shopping malls, subdivisions, and wacky people and his photographs still show us the variety that exists even in the suburbs. Owens delayed his artistic dreams in order to make a living, raise two sons, get divorced, run several businesses, and essentially live a middle-class suburban existence. In the book American Photography, Jonathan Green states “suburbia is a place of pervasive uniformity” and, about Owens’s Suburbia project, “for Owens, suburbia is beyond redemption.” I disagree. If Owens felt that way about suburbia, he would have left long ago.