The Burbs

Bill Owens, a former photojournalist who has artwork in the Whitney Museum of American Art, says the suburbs have become harder to afford for many young families.

“I like looking at ordinary things and seeing it. Most people don’t see the ordinary.”

That’s a quote from photographer Bill Owens. He’s the creator of the 1973 photography book Suburbia, an anthropological study of a 1970s California suburb – shag carpets, manicured lawns, crisp polyester clothes, hot dog dinners, tupperware parties – done in a silvery black-and-white that looks archival but modern, familiar but strange. It’s a portrait so defined it’s hard to tell where its influence begins and ends.

Owens’ vision seem to have touched director Steven Spielberg, photographer Gregory Crewdson, the bands Green Day and Arcade Fire, television show Desperate Housewives, among others.

Owens followed up Suburbia – shot in his Livermore neighborhood – with more books that document middle-class life, including Working (1977) and Leisure (2005), while he turned his attention to founding early brewpub Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in 1983 and the American Distilling Institute in 2005.

Carol Henry is bringing his photographs, memorabilia, a book about the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert, and Owens himself to Carmel in a show of 20 silver gelatin photos titled Bill Owens | The American Dream.

“Bill has become an iconic voice for a 50-year glimpse into California’s past,” Henry says.

Owens says those pictures couldn’t have been taken by an outsider; he was invited into houses and backyards, knew his subjects, was familiar with the rituals. It was his home he was photographing.

“I blend in,” he says.

The photographs offer a critique of the suburbs, showing how conformity and order can iron out the creativity and spontaneity of life. But they also acknowledge the people’s humble aspirations and capture their voices in captions.

“It’s your own castle,” he says. “You come home, you have your TV, privacy and security.”

Owens says he will take folks on a tour of the exhibit, talk them through it and answer questions. And for those who see the show after he’s gone, he has some advice: “Read the photographs.”

He means the details, the background, the shot of the dirty dishes, the Laura Scudder’s potato chip bag, the Campbell’s soup can. It’s those small details that add up to his bigger subject:

“I looked at the American Dream. Who are we? What do we believe in?”

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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