April 17, 2005: Headlines: COS - Jamaica: Photography: Mercury News: A final glimpse of Jamaica RPCV Bill Owens '70s suburbia

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Jamaica: Special Report: Photographer and Jamaica RPCV Bill Owens: April 17, 2005: Headlines: COS - Jamaica: Photography: Mercury News: A final glimpse of Jamaica RPCV Bill Owens '70s suburbia

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A final glimpse of Jamaica RPCV Bill Owens '70s suburbia

A final glimpse of Jamaica RPCV Bill Owens '70s suburbia

A final glimpse of Jamaica RPCV Bill Owens '70s suburbia

A final glimpse of '70s suburbia

By Jack Fischer

Mercury News

Back in the 1970s, a young photographer at the Livermore Independent News turned his camera a few degrees off plumb and returned with what remains, more than 30 years later, the most remarkable book of photographs ever published about suburbia.

The photographer, Bill Owens, and the pictures that he took -- snapshotty, seemingly unaffected things poised between incredulity and affection -- became the book ``Suburbia.'' The photographs were accompanied by short comments from their subjects, who inadvertently revealed oceans of poignancy, longing and comedy below the surface of their mild incarnations of the American Dream.

The book was well received, and Owens published two more, one about suburban clubs and another about suburban work, before they all slipped below the horizon. This was before making photographs as art offered much in the way of an income, and Owens, with a young family to feed, turned his attention elsewhere.

But times change. A resurgence of interest in Owens' work in recent years now has led to ``Leisure,'' the concluding volume of the photographer's epic look at the suburbs and a project he had wanted to do since the publication of the other three. (Photographs from the book are also on exhibit at the Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary St., San Francisco, through the end of the month.)

The new book arrives in a far different context from the earlier ones. Where the first three sprang from an implicitly countercultural, anti-materialistic place and were greeted as such, the new one comes at a time when photography's ability to convey convincing fictions is a given. And that, along with the telling social documentary, has become the new point.

Indeed, the new book has a brief introduction by director Sofia Coppola, who says Owens' work has influenced her since childhood and serves as a visual reference for her feature film ``The Virgin Suicides.''

Following that is a short essay by Gregory Crewdson, currently a hot photographer who builds tableaux, like movie sets, to take photographs of fictional situations. Crewdson credits Owens with influencing a generation of '90s artists who found themselves fascinated with the iconography of the 1970s, such as director Paul Thomas Anderson, novelist A.M. Homes and painter John Currin.

Of course, as the photographs in the new book again testify, Owens was never quite the naif he may have seemed. At the time the project began he had just taken a course in visual anthropology at San Francisco State, and he was well versed in the still cutting-edge, vernacular-filled photographs of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Owens actually created shooting scripts for the book, searching for specific symbols -- one was the best-selling popular psychology book ``I'm OK, You're OK'' -- he gathered together in a single image.

``Leisure'' is an editing of work Owens took back in the 1970s, after suburbia's conventionality and pieties had been riddled with holes by ``Deep Throat,'' disco and recreational cocaine use.

But the deadpan, winsome captions are back, still doing their work. With a photograph of a faintly sullen-looking man leaning on a ``chopped'' motorcycle in front of a ranch house and a station wagon: ``I do what I want to do, and I don't care what the neighbors do.''

And, accompanying a photograph of a suburban lawn party: ``We came because George Plimpton was invited, but he didn't show up.'' Could anything skewer the plight of the suburban intelligentsia more succinctly than that?

All the requisite suburban leisure activities across the range of middle-classdom are there, from golf, tennis and lawn bowling, to hunting, fishing and dirt bike racing. Not to mention casual drug use, strip clubs and rock 'n' roll concerts.

The editing of ``Leisure'' is a bit looser than its predecessors, with the inclusion of some weaker images suggesting that this was, indeed, an emptying out of Owens' negative cupboard. And the interspersing of color images for the first time muddles rather than sharpens the impact of his exquisite eye for working in black and white. But those are relatively minor quibbles about a book that is yet another cultural, social and artistic bull's-eye by Owens.

And, likely his last, if the final image is any indication. The photograph shows a pristine forest with a curve of road and an arrow pointing simply away in the foreground. Beneath it is a caption that we might well this time conclude is Owens himself:

``My dream,'' he says, ``is to have a cabin in the mountains.''


By Bill Owens

Fotofolio, 120 pp., $29.95
Contact Jack Fischer at jfischer@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5440.

When this story was posted in April 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Mercury News

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Jamaica; Photography



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