San Jose Museum of Art
San Jose, CA
The Suburban Seventies: Photographs by Bill Owens
On January 23, 2000 the exhibition The Suburban Seventies: Photographs by Bill Owens will open at the San Jose Museum of Art. Capturing the essence of suburban culture -- tract houses, block parties, mini-skirts, bell-bottoms, rolled-out "instant" lawns, swimming pools, garage sales, and shag carpeting -- Bill Owens' classic photographs are considered to be the definitive treatise on the suburban sprawl that occurred across America in the 1970s. The exhibition includes approximately 80 black-and-white and color photographs, and will run through April 2, 2000. (left: Bill Owens, from the series Suburbia © 1973, photographs 1968-1972, "I enjoy giving a Tupperware party in my home. It gives me a chance to talk to my friends. But really, Tupperware is a homemaker's dream, you save time and money because your food keeps longer.")
The photographs in The Suburban Seventies focus on four separate aspects of the suburban phenomenon -- life, ritual, work, and leisure. The first three series resulted in separate publications: Suburbia, 1973; Our Kind of People, 1975; and Working (I Do It For The Money), 1977. (right: Bill Owens, from the series Our Kind of People © 1975, photographs 1969-74, "The Companions of the Forest of America teaches devotion to the home, respect for other people's religious beliefs, loyalty to the American flag and obedience to God's commandments. Our motto is 'Sociability, Sincerity, and Constancy.' Many good and lasting friendships are formed through membership in the Companions of the Forest of America." )
Owens' interest in his subject matter grew out of his work as a photographer in the 1970s for the Livermore Independent, a Bay Area suburban newspaper. On his beat, he covered such "newsworthy" civic events as ribbon cuttings, beauty pageants, and talent shows. While working for the newspaper, he developed a keen eye for the quirkier side of the mainstream, and took his own "off-the-wall" pictures in addition to more predictable photographs for the Independent. Unlike his predecessors in the documentary tradition -- Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, and Weegee (Arthur Fellig) -- who focused on marginalized groups, Owens was fascinated with showing "ordinary" people and places as equally engaging subjects.
Far from ordinary, Owens' photographs - primarily of his friends and neighbors -- are paired with arch quotations made by the subjects themselves. The combination of quotes and photographs inspire the viewer to alternately laugh with recollection, wince in pity, and nod with understanding. For example, one photograph shows a woman with a bouffant hair-do, dressed in white leather go-go boots and mini-skirt, as she pitches kitchenware to her friends. The caption reads: "I enjoy giving a Tupperware party in my home. It gives me a chance to talk to my friends. But really, Tupperware is a homemaker's dream, you save time and money because your food keeps longer." (left: Bill Owens, from the series Our Kind of People © 1975, photographs 1969-74, "A lot of people say we're chunks of meat, like cattle, but we're not. We're all individuals with dreams and aspirations like everybody else. Being a beauty contestant has taught me about myself, other people, poise, and public speaking. If I had to do it over again, I would. " )
More disquieting is a quote from the parent of a boy who somberly patrols the neighborhood on a Big Wheel with a toy rifle in hand: " I don't feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect on his personality. (He already wants to be a policeman). His childhood gun-playing won't make him into a cop shooter. By playing with guns he learns to socialize with other children. I find the neighbors who are offended by Richie's gun, either the father hunts or their kids are the first to take Richie's gun and go off and play with it." (left: Bill Owens, from the series Leisure (1976-77), Air Show, 1977)
Born in San Jose, Owens first picked up photography in the mid-1960s to document his experiences in Jamaica and the West Indies. By 1968, after returning to the Bay Area, he had landed a staff position at the Livermore Independent, where he worked for 10 years, entrenching himself in the suburban community. Fascinated by his neighbors and their surroundings, he found them to be willing co-conspirators in his idea for a photographic survey of suburbia. The resulting book projects, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, were instant national hits which eventually rose to cult status. (right: Bill Owens, from the series Our Kind of People © 1975, photographs 1969-74, "Our eighth-grade graduation dance was really far out. We spent over $160 on crepe paper, stars and decorations. There was an arched entrance with flowers, a white picket fence, a fountain with real water and a black light. We had live music and a buffet with chicken, turkey, ham, salad, dessert and punch. We had a ball. You only graduate from eighth grade once.")
The Suburban Seventies is curated by Patricia Hickson, SJMA assistant curator. Unavailable for years, a "new & improved" version of Bill Owens' Suburbia has just been released by Fotofolio, with an introduction by David Halberstam. The new version includes color images to complement the original black-and-white photographs, and is available at The Museum Store at SJMA.
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Text and images courtesy of San Jose Museum of Art
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