Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
by Poppy Simpson, Head of Content
Suburbia. It’s never been popular with the chattering classes. Today, social critics tend to venerate the creativity and culture of the crowded city, whilst deriding the cookie-cutter conformity of the ‘suburban wasteland’. And it was much the same in the post-war era, when mass-produced suburbs like Levittown, NY or Lakewood, CA were denounced as stultifying, hollow and, in the words of die-hard urbanite Jane Jacobs, ‘a great blight of dullness’.
But the photographer Bill Owens saw things somewhat differently. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Owens was working for a local newspaper in San Francisco—the Livermore Independent News—and got to know many of the families in the towns and communities east of the Bay. He took pictures of tupperware parties, 4th of July parades, couples and their kids at home and at play. And, in doing so, Owen recognised that the rapid migration from cramped urban apartments to new-builds on the outskirts of the city was not simply a demographic shift, but a profoundly social and psychological one. These families were openly chasing the American dream, and Owens respected their honest determination to improve their lot along with their new-found sense of liberation. This empathy permeates the keenly-observed images of middle-class life in Owen’s first photography book ‘Suburbia’, published in 1972. The collection, which was an immediate success, “personalised a national aspiration” (Smithsonian) even if it gently critiqued it.
I’ve long been drawn to Owens’ Suburbia series—although as British person, it was my fascination with and distance from the American Dream, as opposed to my belief in it, that piqued my interest. But beyond that, it was also the nuance of Owens’ approach that I enjoyed. There’s not the same overt politics of, say, Robert Frank or Diane Arbus. And yet there is a complexity inherent in Owens’ photographs—scenes of banality but also individuality, subjects who are at once traditional and broad-minded. Some of these layers come from the juxtaposition of the image and a short commentary: “How can I worry about the damned dishes when there are children dying in Vietnam?” asks one woman standing in her kitchen, her hair in curlers and a baby in her arms. However, it’s also the way that Owens’ gives his subjects certain license to own their representation—these are straightforward folks and, at first glance, straightforward images.
After a long hiatus, and notable success as a brewer and publisher, Owens has begun photographing again. He quit photography in the 1980s. Why? He explains: “I didn’t so much give up on photography as it gave up on me. You can’t make a living as a photographer if you live in the suburbs…”