Suburbia was the motto of an exhibition of photos by Bill Owens, which was held in the Reflex New Art Gallery in Amsterdam. Who was Owens? Seeing his photos I remembered once being captivated by his book Working, that I bought way back in the seventies. Before going to see this work I googled him and discovered the site of his American gallery:
On this website I found Owens in the midst of a list of, in the company of well-known icons that proves his significance in the field of contemporary photographers. Dick Arentz, Nathan Baker, Tom Baril, Debra Bloomfield, Ken Botto, Jeff Brouws, Edward Burtynsky, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Carl de Keyzer, Elliott Erwitt, Sally Gall, Lynn Geesaman, Lauren Greenfield, Simen Johan, Josef Koudelka, Shai Kremer, Wayne Levin, Sally Mann, Joel Meyerowitz, Duane Michals, Mario Cravo Neto, Bill Owens, Malcolm Pasley, David Parker, Christian Patterson, Nicholas Prior, Holly Roberts, Jan Saudek, Larry Schwarm, Mike Smith, Amy Stein, Jock Sturges, Brian Ulrich, Jo Whaley, Michael Wolf. By being moved over each name the cursor produced an image or two that could be enlarged (magic!) a bit small though, but intriguing enough to go and see the images 1/1 in the gallery. On the side was a minute biography.
(American, 1938 - )
Born in San Jose California in 1938, Bill Owens made a mark photographing the cultural life of his Livermore neighbors. His work has become a landmark chronicle of the mid-century suburban explosion and a seminal influence for an entire generation of American photographers. Owens has enjoyed numerous solo exhibitions worldwide and has had seven monographs of his work published, including Suburbia, 1973, Working (I Do It for the Money), 1977, and Leisure, 2004. His career began as a photographer for the Livermore, California independent newspaper in 1976. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship award, had founded Buffalo Bill's micro-brewery, and was the publisher of American brewer magazine.
Have you seen Owens in the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, in 'Mapping the City'? He indeed has been one the photographers who amongst others have been instrumental in providing the images which visualized the mental picture of life in America, or rather suburban life as it has been the breeding ground of life as it is being lived nowadays.
Those photos now show us the life on the other side of the current depression that many around us suffer from these days, the images that we projected ourselves with our built-in overhead projector in the back of our minds, the life many hard working people dreamed of in the seventies, sunny, roomy houses with a polished car in front of the neatly kept lawn, the shiny life that lay ahead of us, the life we worked for. Looking back we now can see that these images proved to be the power of photography.
At the Reflex Gallery ( www.reflex-art.nl ) we found out more about life in the U.S. of A. Alex Daniëls showed me the books which he had for sale, and gave me background material like picture postcards. Outside the gallery the world had changed.
The world had changed.
During the years 2006 and 2007 Bill Owens went back to revisit Suburbia. The trees have grown taller, but not into the sky, people have grown old or died. New people moved in and worked for a new idea of the dream. New photos were made, in color. But colored with our recent experiences of the current economical crisis we again perceive life in suburbia in a light that changed once more. We have seen glimpses on television; we now know that many of the houses are for sale, that people were forced to leave to an unknown place, a necropolis of unfulfilled dreams. Owens will probably never have foreseen that this once might happen, but in actuality we now see the past future in his photos as well as the archeology of a dream that we most likely will not live to see.
Initially I intended to ask Bill in what way he was inspired by Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, to name a few, but after having absorbed his images and the underlying meaning that I myself gave them, I thought I'd better ask him what his own answer would be to my question of how he foresees his role in the media in photography, in the future.
And I did ask him. And this is what Bill said: 'There are 6 billion people on the earth and 3 billion live on $2 a day. I'm concerned about humanity, and my photographs reflect how the middle class lives. I hope that this is how I will bring about the consciousness and concern in the echelons where change may be originated.'
The sizeable, nicely designed book appeared to be a fine and rather complete monographic panorama of the photos Owens made in the last forty years. Surprisingly the book was published by the Italian publisher Damiani. Daniëls told us that the book as well as the exhibition at Reflex, had been edited by Claudia Zanfi, who is the curator of the Bill Owens Archive in Milan.