Brew Master, Publisher: Bill Owens
Comes Full Circle
by Doug Lang
Bill Owens gained
notoriety for his 1973 photo essay “Suburbia”, but photography
wasn’t paying the bills. So, in 1982, Owens sold most of his
camera equipment and tucked the photographs from “Suburbia”
under his bed. Owens parlayed his hobby as a brewer into one
of California’s first brew pubs, and later launched “American
Brewer Magazine” which he runs today.
“Suburbia” is a behind
the scenes look at the American dream, documenting the life
and times of the suburban dweller. The photographs were shot
in Livermore California’s Amador Valley in 1972. For anyone
who lived in the suburbs during the 70’s, the pictures from
“Suburbia” are like looking in a mirror.
Fast forward 27 years.
“Suburbia” has been republished and the San Jose Museum of Art
is currently presenting an exhibit of photographs from the book.
There’s renewed interest in his work, and Owens has decided
to pick up his camera again to work on a new photo essay called
“Leisure: Americans at Play.”
We recently talked
with Bill Owens about “Suburbia”, his recent "Suburban
Seventies" exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art, and his
upcoming photo essay on leisure.
Art a GoGo:
What was your inspiration for “Suburbia”?
When I came out of the Peace Corps in 1966, I knew that I wanted
to be a photographer. I went back to San Francisco State and
took a visual anthropology class from a guy named John Collier
who had written a book on the subject.
In 1968, I got my
first job as a news photographer for the Livermore Independent,
in Livermore, California. Everyone was moving to the suburbs,
you could buy a house for $2,000, with only $99 down. A two
car garage, a swimming pool, and a Kenmore washer and dryer….all
of the things that come with the good life.
you begin taking photographs for “Suburbia” as part of your
work for the Livermore Independent?
for a newspaper gave me great access to the community. Doing
six to ten assignments a day for the paper, I was in contact
with the Chamber of Commerce, the Chief of Police, community
groups, and schools. You begin to see the community from the
inside out, where most people go to work all day, go home, and
don’t see much of their own community.
Initially, I went
to the city of Livermore and asked them for a couple of thousand
dollars to take photographs of the community for the city’s
archives. I did that project, but in the back of mind I really
wanted to do a bigger project. Really take on the idea of Levitt
Town, and study the sociology of who we are.
photographs of the suburbs?
people look at the suburbs as “ticky tacky” little houses and
say that there’s no culture, and then they go back to the city.
I’m not interested in the city, I’m interested in the middle
class…I was interested in making the suburbs a better place
to live. It’s like Pogo says, “I have met the enemy and he is
AAGG: So how
did you go about shooting the photographs for “Suburbia”?
photographs for “Suburbia” weren’t done by accident. I put together
a shooting script of events that I wanted to photograph…Christmas,
Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Birthday’s, etc. I got a small
grant, and began taking photographs every Saturday for a year,
so basically “Suburbia” was shot in 52 days. After I finished
the photographs, I realized that I had a book, but I never set
out with the intention of doing a book.
we attended the "Suburban Seventies" exhibit at the
San Jose Museum of Art, a gentlemen turned to us and said “it’s
amazing how he (Bill Owens) captures the person, it’s almost
like he’s their best buddy.” How did you go about finding the
people that you photographed?
people were all my friends, relatives, or people I had met in
the community. I also put ads about the project in the local
newspaper, asking people to let me photograph their kids, garage,
you surprised by how much people would reveal about themselves
and their lives?
were wide open, they would say “come on over.” I would sit around
the coffee table, talking and looking around their house. Fifty
percent of the time, it would be a blank, just nothing interesting
to photograph. An example of this is the photograph of Richie.
One day I’m having a cup of coffee, and I walk outside the house
and there’s Richie patrolling the neighborhood with his toy
rifle riding a Big Wheel.
"I don't feel that Richie playing with guns will have a
negative effect on his personality. (He already wants to be
a policeman). His childhood gun-playing won't make him into
a cop-shooter. By playing with guns he learns to socialize with
other children. I find the neighbors who are offended by Richie's
gun, either the father hunts or their kids are the first to
take Richie's gun and go off and play with it."
(c) Bill Owens
interesting, some of the photographs have no captions, some
have a title, some have a paragraph. Why?
I went to the publisher to talk about the book, he said that
we should do captions. When you show people a photograph it
may not mean anything. Sometimes when you photograph a person,
they have something completely opposite to say…you find contradictions.
“Damned Dishes” is an example of this kind of contradiction.
This is a photograph of a woman in her kitchen holding a baby,
with the sink full of dirty dishes. The woman said to me, “how
can I worry about the damned dishes when there are children
dying in Vietnam?” You don’t expect people to have those concerns,
but they do!
"How can I worry
about the damned dishes when there are children dying in Vietnam."
(c) Bill Owens
The captions really
helped tell the story of suburbia. Sometimes we would just drop
the caption because the picture didn’t need it. When I went
to the publisher, he asked me if had gotten releases from the
people that I had photographed--I hadn’t. When I went back to
get the releases, people would sometimes comment on the photograph,
and I would write those comments on the back of the picture.
This is photography after all, it’s not rocket science!
do you think that your photographs have more meaning or more
of an impact on people today than when they originally published
years helps. But think about it, tract homes are still being
built and people can buy a home for $200,000. The suburban life
continues. People might have to commute an hour, but who wants
to live in a stupid apartment where you can hear your neighbors.
kind of comments do you your hear from people about the photographs
love it. People can identify with a little girl’s messy room
(“Responsibility”), there’s an immediate identification. You
can’t avoid being part of the middle class. People want that
home, it’s freestanding, they have a back yard, a lawn, their
own sense of privacy.
"I wanted Christina
to learn some responsibility for cleaning her room, but it didn't
(c) Bill Owens
do you feel about these same photographs now compared to then?
I had a lot of applause about the book when it was published.
I did two more books, “Our Kind of People” and “Working: I Did
it For the Money.” I really thought I had a shot at a career
as a professional photographer. But that didn’t happen because
our society did not embrace photography as an art form at that
time. Now, there is a lot of photographers who make it as artists.
So, I had to put the cameras away. I became a brew master, owner
of a couple of breweries and moved on with my life. So, now,
to have it come back to me is really sweet. It was very nice
to go to Paris to the Louvre to a show, and sign my book for
a couple of days.
There’s no money
in it…It’s really bragging rights. I think, how did I ever get
a book published? It’s pretty amazing. I like to brag about
all of my failures in life…and I’ve had many. I’m very sympathetic
to anyone who is dyslexic, I can’t spell very well, but I have
verbal skills. Give me the phone, and I’ll make money. I can
sell advertising, I am publisher, I have three web sites. I’ve
started seven businesses.
us about your next project, “Leisure: Americans at Play.”
Owens: I just
picked up a brochure for a car, and on the cover of the brochure
was a guy jumping off of a rock into a beautiful lake. I thought,
what a wonderful leisure time activity, to jump off rocks into
a lake….just what I used to do as a kid.
The “Leisure” book
will be all new photos. I started on the project years ago,
but put it away. It will be all color, large format photographs.
For example, the biggest spectator sport in America (paid admission,
people sitting in grandstands) is auto racing. Where will I
go for this? To the Indianapolis 500? Maybe to South Carolina?
Or, should I go to one of the Monster truck events. How about
a World Wrestling event, think how much fun that would be?
When I walk into
these events, I have to make one shot count, because I don’t
want to repeat my theme. Is it a medium shot, a close up on
a wrestler, or someone singing an autograph?
was the catalyst for the renewed interest in your work, and
how did the exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art come about?
Owens: A friend
of mine, Bob Shimshak came to me about 10 years ago and asked
me where all of the pictures were. I told him that they were
under my bed and in the basement. So, basically I gave him all
of the materials so he could organize it….it was just sitting
there. Bill is on the board of a few museums and is a collector,
and he was able to get my first show in New York. From there
other shows evolved.
AAGG: Is the
“Suburbia” exhibit going to be shown at any other museums after
it leaves the San Jose Museum of Art in April?
is scheduled at this time. “Suburbia” was republished in 1999.
Some of my photographs will be part of a group show in Greece
and London this spring.
the years, have you heard from some of the people that you photographed
Owens: I really
didn’t until the book was republished. I was at a book signing
in Livermore, CA, and a lot of people that I photographed for
the book came. Some of people that were in the book also came
to the opening at the San Jose Museum of Art. It was great!
I’m also planning on taking new photographs of some of the people
that were in the book, especially people like Richie (the photograph
of a child riding a Big Wheel – “Richie”)
By the way, Richie
called me a few days ago and I told him that I was working on
a book about leisure, so I asked Richie what he does in his
leisure time. He told me that he likes to ride his Harley Davidson
motorcycle. Perfect! So, Richie may be part of the new book.
People who are interested in being photographed for “Leisure:
Americans at Play” can sign my guest book at www.billowens.com
"Suburbia" by Bill Owens!
Suburbia by Bill
Owens (Photographer), Robert Harshorn Shimshak (Editor), David
Availability: Usually ships within 24 hours.
Hardcover - 120 pages (November 2, 1999) Fotofolio; ISBN: 1881270408
; Dimensions (in inches): 0.65 x 10.25 x 10.23