I have had the pleasure of speaking with Bill Owens about his work, he is an inspiring image maker who even today embraces new technology and practices that enable him to continue on his mission to photograph society and it’s excesses. Considered to be pioneering work by many photographers Suburbia is a groundbreaking, elegiac and revealing monograph of community living and materialism.
In his opening address for the book Owens states the people featured “…Enjoy the life-style of the suburbs. They have realized the American Dream. They are proud to be home owners and to have achieved material success. To me nothing seemed familiar, yet everything was very, very familiar. At first I suffered from culture shock. I wanted to photograph everything, thousands of photographs. Then slowly I began to put my thoughts and feelings together and to document Americans in Suburbia…”
The images in this book touched a nerve with me, and it was while we talked that I realized he had defined a niggling feeling I have carried ever since childhood.
“Soon after seeing Suburbia for the first time, I was given a box containing hundreds of photographs of my own childhood taken in the same era. The influence upon me of Owen’s work was immediate. Here was a record of the life my parents felt compelled to create. On the people and in the backgrounds I found the trappings of the day from the clothes to the stereos, the cars to the televisions, and the extravagant Christmases and luxurious birthday parties. Most of which I know now they could not always afford. I found myself articulating the same social commentary that Owen’s photographs captured and which both he and the work continue to exude today.
“I’m a regular person, he says. “I don’t photograph prostitutes; I don’t photograph the downtrodden. I photograph what the problem is in our culture. And the problem is the middle class consuming all that garbage in a consumer society that gives you no satisfaction. That’s how I look at it. I can’t go two days without buying something. But all Man is like that. If you’re out in the bush, you collect rocks, twigs – people need to gather things, to keep things.”
© Sean Samuels 2014
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