Blast from the Past?

Flipping through Suburbia, Bill Owens’s now seminal examination of suburban life in 1970s California, I find my initial responses closely resemble the way I recall feeling as I watched “Leave it To Beaver” or “I Love Lucy” as a child: amusement, plus a sense of distance from my own way of life.  After scanning the book, I pass it over to my father. A grin spreads across his face when he identifies a pair of shoes he shared in common with one of Owens’s protagonists: “I used to look and dress just like that guy.”

"As a union carpenter I earn $90 a day. That includes my medical, dental and retirement program. I can only work like this for about ten years before I’m burned out or injured. I want to be foreman next—more money for less work." From the “Working (I Do It For The Money)” series, circa 1976-1977. Gelatin silver print. 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the San Jose Museum of Art.

Up now at the San Jose Museum of Art, Bill Owens: Ordinary Folks is a small and quiet exhibition of forty vintage gelatin silver prints from three series produced by the photographer in the 1970s, shot predominantly in the Bay Area. In Suburbia (1972), Owens presents vignettes of early-seventies, middle-class suburban life, an investigation he carried on with greater specificity in Our Kind of People (1975), where he looked at fraternal organizations, youth activities and other groups.  Working (I Do It For The Money) (1976) draws its inspiration from the various professional listings in the Yellow Pages, and documents occupations ranging from executives to factory workers.

Given his in-depth examination of specific communities, critics frequently associate this work with the American tradition of social documentary photography, pioneered by figures such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Diane Arbus. Certainly, the fact that Owens was working as a photojournalist for a local newspaper at the time these photographs were produced must have informed his aesthetic inclinations. Yet there is something intimate and familiar about the photographs, an intimacy I attribute to the fact that Owens was not an outsider merely documenting a situation, but was himself implicated in the social landscape he was chronicling.

"It’s fun to break up the glass. We’re doing our thing for ecology and the Boy Scouts will give us a badge for working here." From the “Suburbia” series, 1971. Gelatin silver print. 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the San Jose Museum of Art.

Text also plays a significant role in experiencing these photographs. One cannot help but smile at the honest and endearing remarks of the three, stoic young boys, posed with glass bottles in hand: “It’s fun to break up the glass. We’re doing our thing for ecology and the Boy Scouts will give us a badge for working here.” While Owens’s photographs capture idiosyncrasies characteristic of a particular moment in American history, many of the comments from his subjects transcend the period. People continue to wonder what it takes to attain the “American Dream,” what this attainment might mean, and how home, lifestyle and profession shape our identities.

So expect to see extraordinary feats of home decoration, bouffant hairdos, bellbottom pants and wide lapels. But also be prepared to encounter more facets of present day society than you may initially anticipate.  Nostalgia is not all these photographs have to offer.

Bill Owens: Ordinary Folks is on display at the San Jose Museum of Art through February 5, 2012.

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