Friday, July 25, 2008

Bill Owens & the suburban dream

"We're really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food, and we have a really nice home."
From Suburbia by Bill Owens, All rights reserved

In the early 70s Bill Owen's book Suburbia blasted to smithereens all my ideas about satire. What I learned from it was you could make fun of your own world. Before that I thought the targets of skepticism & ridicule had to be very different from the satirist. In Europe between the wars, artists had mercilessly ridiculed the bourgeosie. Drinking hard in the Cedar Tavern, American abstract expressionists in NYC had done the same. In the 60s an entire self-appointed generation had identified with Dylan's sneering putdown: "Something's happenin' but you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones..." Now in the 1970s, with the Vietnam War still raging, I thought it was a given that an artist of what I judged to be Owen's status would take the same hostile approach to the tickytacky houses & uptight materialists of the suburbs as his predecessors had.

So I opened Suburbia & here was this guy Owens out in California making pictures of shag rugs, fake leather, hideous art, mantelpieces stuffed with knick knacks, swimming pools, shiny new cars, speedboats, TV sets, gleaming appliances -- & somehow he'd managed to get the suburban people in the shots too -- smiling, laughing, striking poses. He was telling it like it is. Wow!

It took me a few times through the book to realize that the pictures were more complicated than that. They showed suburban life in all its weird glory, but not necessarily to mock it. The photos lacked a killer instinct. They were straightforward, didn't use camera angles or tricks to make points & were, I was pretty sure, careful not to document events in a way that someone who was there wouldn't recognize. Though I might find it easy to critique the lifestyle, the people in the pictures were proud of it. It was an accurate record.

"Boy with toy gun," Bill Owens, All rights reserved

It turns out Owens worked for the local paper of Livermore, CA, the town he documented. He's a suburban guy himself. Far from being a graduate of a fancy art school, he got his only degree, a B.A. in industrial arts, from Cal State at Chico. In 1972 he made up a script of things he wanted to cover in Livermore -- e.g. a tupperware party, a 4th of July barbecue -- & shot pictures every Saturday for a year. His chosen point of view was neutral, photojournalistic. His attitude is summed up in an interview he gave to Art a GoGo in 2000: "I’m not interested in the city, I’m interested in the middle class…I was interested in making the suburbs a better place to live. It’s like Pogo says, 'I have met the enemy and he is us!'"

"Monument Valley, UT," Bill Owens, All rights reserved

All of which, I should quickly add, doesn't invalidate my initial reponse to the book. Among many other things, Suburbia IS a devastating satire. Owens is no innocent & his documentation is not naive. But the irony & absurdist humor are in the nature of the photographer, not the subject. Owens would have (& subsequently has) brought the same sensibility to every subject that interests him.

"I have met the enemy & he is us!"

Suburbia became a classic, but, after its publication, Owens found he couldn't make a living as a photographer. He parlayed his hobby as a brewer into one of California’s first brew pubs, and later launched “American Brewer Magazine” which he runs today. Happily, he also continued to make photographs.

A selection of his later black & white & recent digital work is at James Cohan Gallery till August 1st. It's a fascinating show, but, unfortunately, the sloppiness of the digital color prints don't do justice to Owen's latest efforts.

No comments: