New York

Bill Owens

Add another name to the growing list of 1970s American photographers recently “rediscovered” by the contemporary art world. You could say that this resurgence began with 303 Gallery’s exhibition of Stephen Shore’s photographs in 2000. That show, Shore’s first New York solo exhibition in five years, put his dusty road pictures and poignant slices of rural ennui (abandoned drive-in theaters, expansive skies over desolate byways) in a new, hipper context. The tendency has continued with a reinvigorated market for William Eggleston and the reemergence of other prominent figures from the period, including Robert Adams, Mitch Epstein, Joel Sternfeld, and Mary Ellen Mark. And now, California-based photographer Bill Owens has earned his own moment in the sun.

Owens’s book Suburbia, first published in 1973, sold over fifty thousand copies and put this Livermore Independent news photographer on the cultural map. But two subsequent books did less well, and Owens retreated from photography in the early ’80s to become proprietor of a microbrewery and, later, publisher of Beer: The Magazine. Owens has been the subject of regular—if scattershot—exhibitions over the past twenty years, but James Cohan Gallery evidently felt that the artist needed a new introduction: The work in this show dated from 1968 to 1981, with an emphasis on the early ’70s.

“America,” the show’s title, requires a qualifier. Like Eggleston, Owens is a regional photographer, and his beat is middle-class life in the northern California suburbs he calls home—a fact emphasized by the arrangement of this miniretrospective of three dozen mostly black-and-white shots from his three best-known series. A suburban cul-de-sac, shot from midair, dominates the first picture one encounters, with tract homes spread like carpet all the way to the distant mountains. This shot announces the territory as Owens’s own, and others soon plunge us into its particulars: kids on the sidewalk with toy guns, passing time in their bedrooms, or dressed up for Halloween; awkward couples grilling burgers on the patio or dancing in a room with the couch pushed against the wall; depopulated interiors anchored by a television set (one shows Nixon, another the text THE FLIGHT OF APOLLO 15). In the exhibition’s final image, Owens pulls back again, showing us a front-yard Fourth of July party as seen from a rooftop.

Distance, configured as detachment, is the hallmark of these pictures. Owens was a denizen of the same Livermore Valley development as many of his subjects, and his photographs exude a neighborly politeness. (Fellow photographer Wayne Miller had to encourage the artist to include sex as a subject in Suburbia, and the era’s tensions—racial upheaval, the Vietnam War—are nowhere to be found.) This remoteness likewise describes his approach to formal issues: Owens stuck close to the “straight” style of 1930s Farm Security Administration forebears such as Dorothea Lange. The raucous late ’60s and early ’70s may have spawned the decidedly subjective narratives of New Journalism, but the idea of establishing a New Documentary Photography was definitely not on Owens’s mind. Nevertheless, his pictures are not without character. Like a good news photographer—Owens worked Monday to Friday for the paper and indulged in “personal work” on Saturdays—he let the personalities of his subjects shine through, whether young or old, reticent or expressive. To see these photographs today is to be confronted by a microcosmic portrait of a specific moment that seems also to presage the way many of us live now.

Brian Sholis