Born in San Jose in 1938, Owens was raised on a farm, then joined the Peace Corps, shipping out to Jamaica (1964-65). He took a camera with him and learned how to use it. When Owens returned to Northern California to study visual anthropology, at San Francisco State University, the school was in the throes of an anti-Vietnam revolution, and he photographed the mayhem. In 1968, the Livermore Independent offered him a $1,500 grant and a job as a photojournalist. Owens purchased a Pentax and settled into small-town life.
Back then, Livermore was a quaint town, a place where you could have it all—a house for $2,000, a garage, a swimming pool, and a TV set. Owens’s approach to photography was not so much documentary as a study in style. His subjects were industrial buildings, fast-food joints, coiffed suburban dames, and parking lots full of shiny cars.
“The photographs … weren’t done by accident,” Owens told Art a GoGo. “I put together a shooting script of events that I wanted to photograph … Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, birthdays.”
While other photographers flocked to cities to find excitement, it was precisely the ticky-tacky houses of the suburbs that interested Owens, their gleam of hard-won achievement. “They have realized the American Dream,” he said. “They are proud to be homeowners and to have achieved material success.”
One hundred twenty photographs from those early years were eventually collected in Suburbia, a book that made history when it was published, in 1972. Owens opened Buffalo Bill’s Brewery 10 years later, but over time came back to camera work. Bill Owens: The Legacy of Suburbia—Photographs 1964–2022, a new book publishing in conjunction with a 50th-anniversary exhibition of his work at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, California, includes images from Owens’s entire oeuvre, from the Peace Corps to the present day. —Elena Clavarino
Bill Owens: The Legacy of Suburbia—Photographs 1964–2022 will be published on October 8 by True North Editions. “Bill Owens, Suburbia—50th Anniversary” opens on October 8 at Carmel’s Center for Photographic Art
Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL