Wednesday, February 6, 2013

It Is What It Is: Image + Book

TV Room from Suburbia © Bill Owens, 1973, revised 1999
The generally affable Bill Owens (American 1938- ) had just returned from a stint in the Peace Corps. He observed the normalcy yet strangeness of the burgeoning American suburbs. While working for the Livermore Independent as a photojournalist, he became intrigued by suburban Livermore. He photographed on assignment and made pictures of people in their homes doing what they do for work and leisure. After he had enough material and was laid off, he collected quotes as text to make something substantial, a book titled Suburbia published in 1973. Though his photographs were collected and exhibited by prestigious museums from the MOMA to the Getty, it wasn't a living. He had a family to support. Always entrepreneurial and a believer in self-publishing, he wrote a book about making books (extremely rare) after his own experiences. He later quit pursuing the "art world" to put his energy into more economically viable projects like a brew pub (1983) and later distilling (2004). As Canadian media critic Marshall McLuhan wrote in his 1967 book, The Medium is the Massage: "The poet, the artist, the sleuth--whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely "well adjusted," he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among anti-social types in their power to see environments as they really are." (p. 88). Owens did exactly that in his books and ongoing projects. Entering suburban space in earnest to photograph, he left us with a critique of a lifestyle that today may strike us as comic yet coaxes feelings of pity. McLuhan continued, "Humor as a system of communications and as a probe of our environment--of what's really going on--affords us our most appealing anti-environmental tool. It does not deal with theory, but in immediate experience, and is often the best guide to changing perceptions." (p. 92). Perusing the Suburbia work today becomes an act of discovery, a probe of a mental space and a place that once was. Decades later, suburbia has mutated throughout America into a boundless sprawl of fast food restaurants, faux artisinal boutique stores, big box stores, parking lots, seemingly infinite beige, gray, and white cookie cutter houses, and vacant McMansions

Tupperware Party from Suburbia © Bill Owens, 1973, revised 1999