Bill Owens: Suburbanites and Socialites

Review

Bill Owens: Suburbanites and Socialites

By Maria Porges February 19, 2015

Three girls carrying batons parade across hideous houndstooth wall-to-wall carpeting. They look focused on their practice; a fourth girl, dejected or maybe just bored, sits in the background by a wall of trophies (awards for twirling, possibly?). This black-and-white photograph from 1973 is one of thirty-three featured in Suburbanites and Socialites, a small but compelling research-driven exhibition at the Mills College Art Museum. The photographs—recently donated by Robert Harshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner—were selected from Suburbia, Owens’s 1973 landmark book of images and text, later followed by Our Kind of People (1975), Working—I do it for the Money (1977), and, decades later, Leisure (2004).

In the early 1970s, when Owens took these pictures in and around Livermore, California, few photographers had shown an interest in portraying life within the vast sprawl of housing developments that would become home to sixty million Americans in the decades after World War Two. Having discovered photography during a stint in the Peace Corps, Owens took a job in 1968 as staff photographer for The Independent, a small newspaper in Livermore. Going out on up to six assignments a day made it easy to get to know the people, places, and events of the community Owens was documenting. Along the way, he became one of the most important chroniclers of his time, known for images so memorable that they have become part of our unconscious template for how suburbia should look.

Bill Owens. Untitled [Baton Practice], ca. 1973. Gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x 10 in. Gift of Marion Brenner and Robert Harshorn Shimshak. Courtesy of Mills College Art Museum, Oakland.

Curated by Meghan Adkins, Melissa Mize, Sadie Padial, Clare Schneider, Sophie Sterling, and Veronica Sutter, all undergraduate students in a Museum Studies class taught by museum director Stephanie Hanor, Suburbanites and Socialites focuses on the documentary, rather than the artistic, content of Owens’s work. Not long before he took the newspaper job, Owens took a class at San Francisco State University with John Collier Jr., author of Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (1967). The impact of Collier’s teaching can be seen throughout Owens’s Suburbia work, but it is especially clear in the photographs chosen from prints donated by Shimshak and Brenner. Many depict special social events; several feature groups of women posing in evening gowns or attending meetings of some kind. Others, such as the one with the girls carrying batons, seem more candid in their recording of daily life and “tribal” practices.   

The show as a whole is framed in the context of the ways these pictures raise questions “about the role of women in the early 1970s, the importance of community and social organizations, and the cultural differences between suburban and urban parts of the greater Bay Area during that time period.“1 This sociological perspective and scholarly tone is found throughout the student-produced materials (a sample essay title: “Woman’s Work: Performing Female Identity in 1970s Suburbia”), including a brief, cell phone–accessible audio guide for a few images. For instance, the accompanying narration to Untitled [Softball game] (ca. 1973), a picture of women on a playing field, explains what they are doing (leaving a huddle, heading for their positions) rather than offering any thoughts about the image’s composition or visual qualities. But the picture is deeply interesting (and very different from almost every other one in the show, the majority of which feature groups passively posed for the camera). In it, the players, heads down as they take their places, seem at first to be unaware of each other, like scattered pedestrians on a city street. The realization then sinks in that the image’s subject—middle-aged women acting together as a team while playing a sport—was unique to the suburban world Owens turned his camera on.

Bill Owens. Untitled [Girls Collecting Specimen in Water], ca. 1973. Gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x 10 in. Gift of Marion Brenner and Robert Harshorn Shimshak. Courtesy of Mills College Art Museum, Oakland.

Near the show’s entrance, the student-produced catalogue and a copy of each of Owens’s books are available for examination. Hopefully, visitors who don’t have previous knowledge of his engagement with suburbia will take some time to sit and read some of the students’ essays and look at Owens’s extraordinary collections of images, a great many of which feature women and girls. His even-handed and perceptive portrayal of their lives has always conveyed eloquent truths about community and isolation, cultural difference and relentless sameness, all at once.

Looking at the works in the show, I recalled my own experience of 1973, as a college student working a summer job at a print shop in a far-flung, racially un-diverse Chicago suburb that was not all that different from Livermore. At the time, I felt like a secret agent from another reality. Now, I imagine how strange Owens’s pictures must look to a group of contemporary students, some of whom might come from a very different version of suburbia. These eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white prints—a size and format customary for their time, yet so tiny and oddly colorless by today’s spectacular standards—could be viewed as the record of a lost civilization: a world in which these houses cost $2,000, the average salary of residents was $9,000 a year, and 97 percent of them were white. (A page of fascinating demographic facts is included in the catalogue.)

Yet those numbers tell only part of the story, as does the historical and sociological analysis provided in the exhibition’s explanatory materials. As I peered into these tiny windows into a seemingly distant past, I found myself wondering what these dances and parties were about. What happened to these girls—Bluebirds, Sea Scouts, cheerleaders—as they grew up, went to college, and started their adult lives? When I think about the tidal wave of changes that were moving through the political and sociocultural landscape at that time, there is something both tender and awful about the reality Owens captured. It is a reality we are fortunate to have a record of, as imaginary as it now seems.

Bill Owens: Suburbanites and Socialites is on view at Mills College Art Museum, in

Oakland

, through March 15, 2015.

Notes

  1. Stephanie Hanor, Introduction to catalogue for exhibition.

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