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BILL OWENS
by Claudia Zanfi

Bill Owens was born in San José, California, in 1938. The son of an Oklahoma miner (who moves to California to work as a bricklayer) and a nurse, he grows up on a farm near Citrus Heights. It is the period which sees the end of the Depression and the springing up of small satellite towns throughout the whole Californian Sunshine State. After his diploma, between 1960 and 1961, Owens spends a year travelling abroad. Following this, he registers on the course of “Industrial Arts” at the University of Chico, in California. He graduates in 1963 and marries Janet Betonte, a young nurse. Together they decide to serve as volunteers in the “Peace Corps”, teaching English from 1964 to 1966 in various villages of Jamaica and India. It is here that, observing a photograph of the group, Owens becomes filled with enthusiam for the medium: he buys a used camera and takes a series of pictures of life in the village. Between 1966/67 he travels in Europe and starts to gain confidence in photography. He goes to San Francisco State University, but finds himself at variance with the lecturers. His work is not aiming at formal, aesthetic values: Owens wants to practise “a visual anthropology” with the camera. At the same period he is photo-editor for the “San Francisco State Daily Gator”. In the subsequent decade, from 1968 to 1978, he works as a photographic journalist for the “Livermore Independent”, the daily newspaper in Amador Valley, a dormitory town of the Bay Area, 40 chilometres east of San Francisco.
During these years Owens is witness to a social phenomenon of the greatest importance: the wave of immigration towards the coasts of the “fabulous West”. The continuous exodus of thousands of families from the major American cities and from the most disadvantaged regions (mountains, deserts, barren, unwelcoming places), causes the splitting up of the immense, agricultural stretches of land into a myriad small centres. The exodus has its beginning immediately after the Second World War; a building constructor by the name of Bill Levitt, basing himself on the mass production system used by Henry Ford for cars, puts the same process into practice in house construction, envisaging lots of miniature towns for the less populated zones. The urbanization of these new, untouched areas creates towns designed on paper, called, in fact, “Levitt Towns”, with geometrical outlines, streets all the same, prefabricated houses, double garages, small swimming pools and artificial lawns. The mobilization of the population towards these “smiling” suburbs is striking; it is calculated that up to 1980 more than 60 million Americans moved from the cities to the suburbs. Owens is there with his camera. He thus begins to document the development of these places: the architecture of the houses, the care taken with interior decoration, people’s optimism. His gaze is not critical or derisory with regard to this middle-class advancing at the sides of the great urban centres. He particularly likes the work of the Farm Security Administration and the images of Dorothea Lange, “who really knows how to capture the spirit of America”. His references are authors like Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Weegee; unlike them, however, Owens does not focus on the world of the marginalized, but on that of ordinary people. He photographs neighbours, friends, relatives, the communities of the suburbs, the police, the schools. The author understands the importance of putting together a fresco of the new American society; with a frank, close-up regard he collects the images of the “American Dream” of the ‘70s.
His first book, Suburbia, is published in 1973, with black and white and colour photographs, by Straight Arrow Books, New York.(Their director, Alan Rinzler, had already published works by Arbus, Lyon, Frank). The book was an immense success: more than 50.000 copies were sold, with three reprints, distributed worldwide. The pictures are accompanied by a long series of captions: this is often the identity of the people portrayed, with names, dates of birth, subjects studied, the type of employment and hobbies. Other times it is a sort of note, a thought or opinion. Owens captures the sense of the simple life of every day, of the American middle class, as we find it in the films of John Waters, a self-declared admirer of Owens’ photography, or in the atmosphere described in Stop Making Sense, Davide Byrne’s film, the entertaining social fresco dedicated to the‘70s. Here the habits, rites, eccentricities, manias and fashions (unforgettable the scene of the fashion parade with the plastic clothes reproducing fake fields dotted with gigantic daisies) are recounted with a critical eye and place the vices of American society under a magnifying glass. Owens’ regard is perhaps less cynical but equally ironic in giving an account of the events of the Livermore population. Cars and fitted carpets, furniture and fireplaces, lawns and laminated surfaces, sinks which act as flower-stands and backcombed hairstyles: all this creates the perfect back-drop for the characters of Suburbia. The book does not come into being accidentally but follows a precise scheme thought up by the author when taking the photographs. Every Saturday, for more than a year, Owens, with his 6x7 Pentax and a wide-angle lens, has followed the unfolding of the events he intended to photograph: the Fourth of July (the American national feastday), Thanksgiving Day (8th December), Christmas, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, barbecues. Unlike Diane Arbus, who went looking for her subjects, Owens lives in their midst and participates in the activities of the suburb.
Following on from the success obtained with the publication of the book Suburbia, between 1974 and 1976 Owens is invited to various exhibitions among which figure his one-man shows - at the Oakland Museum of Art and at the Focus and John Berggruen galleries in San Francisco - and the important collective exhibition at the MOMA in New York, after which several of his photographs enter and make up part of the museum’s permanent collection. In 1976 he obtains the “Guggenheim Fellowship”. On the wave of success obtained with Suburbia, in 1975 he publishes Our Kind of People (published by Straight Arrow Books), dedicated to political, religious, organizational, school and social groups and their rituals. In 1977 he publishes the photographic collection Working (I do it for Money), published by Simon&Schuster, a book on people who work, dedicated to his wife, Janet, who would like him to have a “a real job from nine to five”. At the time, he is invited to numerous exhibitions, as well as to talk-shows, interviews, workshops and seminars. From 1978 to 1982 he works as a freelance photographer, with articles published in “Life” and “Newsweek”, the latter commissioning him to do a section for the issue dedicated to the bicentenary of the magazine’s foundation. The publication of his latest two volumes of photography is, however, a real failure, very few copies being sold. His economic and matrimonial problems lead to his divorce from Janet in 1982.
In the same year, a Californian law on the licensing of alcohol allows bars to sell beer they have produced themselves. In 1983, having to choose between his career and supporting his children Andrew (sixteen) and Erik (twelve), Owens abandons photography and opens the brewery Buffalo Bill’s Brewery at Hayward in California, where he will be involved till 1995. During these years he dedicates himself to publishing and brings out the magazine “American Brewer Magazine”, in which he gathers together pictures and testimonies from beer producers. His interest in good cuisine and photography keep pace with each other: he publishes two original volumes on photography: Documentary Photography: a personal view and Publish Your Photo Book. In the last decade he has taken up a busy round of exhibitions again, with a series of shows such as: in 1994 the one-man shows at the American Fine Arts Centre in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; in 1996 a collective exhibition at the San Francisco MOMA, a one-man show at the Robert Koch in San Francisco and one at the Blum and Poe gallery in Los Angeles; in 1997 he is present at the “Salon de la Photo” in Paris; in 1998 he has his first French retrospective at the “Centre Photographic de l’Ile de France” in Paris. In 1999 he exhibits at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York and at the Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle. In the same year, thanks to the intervention of his friend and agent Robert Shimshak, he presents the fourth reprint of Suburbia, in an updated version, published by Fotofolio of New York. The book and the show are presented by the Howard Greenberg gallery, New York. In 2000 he has a one-man show at the Artandphotographs gallery in London and a retrospective at the San Josè Museum of Art.
Among Bill Owens’ most recent projects is the publication of a volume dedicated to free time, with the title Leisure: Americans at Play. The idea was born a few years ago: Bill Owens starts to photograph the Americans and their relationship with sport; he documents special events like the “500 Miles” in Indianapolis, the challenge of the colossal “Trucks” or, again, a “Wrestling” match, described by means of a series of colour photographs in large format. The book is due to come out in 2002.
(C. Z.)