Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
Bill Owens (Jamaica 1964–65) took iconic photos all through his career. He’s noted for shooting pictures of the Hells Angels beating concertgoers at the Rolling Stones’ performance during the Altamont Speedway Free Festival four months after Woodstock on December 6, 1969, considered by historians as the end of the Summer of Love.
Of that day, Owens has written: “I got a call from a friend, she said the Associated Press wanted to hire me for a day to cover a rock and roll concert. I rode my motorcycle to the event. I had two Nikons, three lenses, thirteen rolls of film, a sandwich, and a jar of water.”
In 1972, Owens released a book of black and white photography called Suburbia, now an American icon. Suburbia’s images are of people embarking on a new, modern way of life that they look excited by, but also confused, as though technology and the modish styles of the time were costumes they were still getting comfortable in. Owens’ photograph of a young suburban boy wearing cowboy boots, carrying a toy rifle and riding a Big Wheel, “Ritchie,” is perhaps his most famous, a haunting look at life in the new suburbs.
Irascible, stubborn, funny, grouchy, ornery and deeply rooted in small town life, Owens is built like a middleweight puncher and wears his hair as though he was a Marine. Indeed, Owens was never a hippie, but a clean-cut newspaper photographer, husband and father, who joined the Peace Corps to serve his country and “do good.” Now in his 80s, Owens has also had noted careers as a craft beer brewer and pub owner, a magazine publisher many times over, and a distiller. His books include Suburbia, Working, Leisure, and many others; he is the recipient of a Guggenheim and two NEAs; his work is collected in leading museums the world over, including the Smithsonian.
Recent coverage of Owens includes an April 2020 retrospective in the New York Times of his Altamont photos for the event’s impending 50th anniversary. The photos are available for viewing at Owens’ website.
Now, Owens has had his work collected in this grand, beautiful book, The Legacy of Suburbia. It features introductory essays on Owens and his place in our cultural legacy, as well as hundreds of his photos ranging from the bawdy to the sublime. This is an honest look at America and Americana, as all of Bill’s career has been. With a $400 price tag, the book is for the true fan, not only of Owens, but of the times Owens covered and of the great tradition of American photography. No serious collector or scholar of modern America or American photography can be without this book.
I had the pleasure of chatting with my friend Bill recently about this, his latest book. A snippet of our rambling conversation is transcribed here; for a longer interview, check out this one I did with him in 2019 for PeaceCorpsWorldwide.
Tony D’Souza — I got your new book here, Bill. It’s utterly beautiful.
Bill Owens —I had all these decades of material and [True North] said, ‘We want to do a book.’ They put a lot of time into it and went through all my photos. The quality of the ink, the quality of the paper, I’m really happy with it, they hit a “10” with this book. There’s a reason it costs $400.
And this book covers your whole career?
Yes, everything from the very beginning when I first started taking pictures of people when I was in the Peace Corps in Jamaica.
The book shows how avant-garde you have always been, how outside the mainstream of photography. Is that what you hope to leave behind as a legacy?
Yeah. I take pictures out of the pure joy of doing it. I’m not on assignment in most of the photos in this book.
How can your fans buy this book?
They can send a check for $400 to Bill Owens, Box 577, Hayward, California, 94541.
Anything else you want folks to know, Bill?
You can also say, ‘Bill considers himself the risotto king,’ because of my cooking. And I’m on Match.com looking for a new wife. I’ve been rejected a couple of times, women emailed me back saying, ‘We’re not a match.’ And I say, ‘I’m not a match?’ Well, all right.
Tony D’Souza is a Sarasota, Florida-based writer. His three novels and many investigative journalism articles have received a Guggenheim, an NEA, and the NEA Japan Friendship Fellowship. He spends his summers in Dunsmuir, CA, a small railroad mountain town where his wife was born and raised, and where he first met his friend, the iconic American photographer Bill Owens.