on 31 December 2003
In the world of photography books Suburbia is an all time classic. It has been out of print for years and on the rare occasions undamaged original copies appear on the market they sell for large amounts of money. The original was published in 1973 by Rolling Stone magazine’s imprint Straight Arrow and 50,000 copies were produced in three editions.
Put simply Suburbia chronicles the realization of the American Dream, as it was experienced in the nineteen seventies, by the occupants of a newly built housing estate in the Livermore Amador Valley not far from Los Angeles. While others across the world were glued to images of the Apollo 15 the occupants of the estate, perhaps in the tradition of their pioneer ancestors, were setting down to the microcosm of building new and better lives. Owens, son of a mule skinner and a nurse’s aid, made his living as the staff photographer on the Livermore Independent. In a manner that will be familiar to all local newspaper journalists he lived a never ending journey around Livermore, visiting the myriad small but all important happenings that combine to make up a community and provide it with a sense of self.
He became fascinated and began returning to make his own pictures. These, shot on 6x7, form the basis for Suburbia and the $1,500 advance for the book paid the mortgage deposit on a brand new, two-bedroom, Cape Cod-style house on the estate. Each of the original portraits was accompanied by a short statement from it’s subject. “Sunday afternoon we get it together: I cook the steaks and my wife makes the salad” `and “How can I worry about the damned dishes when there are children dying in Vietnam?” are two that sing out. To the occupants of the estate the photographer was both one of them and more importantly a validation of their efforts.
Over nearly thirty years Suburbia has moved from it’s opening position as a piece of original, piercing, social documentary to that of a historic document. Society is said to have become more visually articulate over the last quarter of the past century but the book undoubtedly stands the test of time. Owens own journey has also weathered the years. He separated from his wife in 1979 and in 1982 decided to “hang up his guns” and open Buffalo Bill’s Brewery micro-brewery and bar in Hayward, California. Thankfully however journalism seems to be in his blood. Since 1986 he has been publisher of American Brewer magazine and he is now working on a new series of photographs about Americans at play. The new edition of Suburbia has been long awaited and Owens well exhibits his editing talents in the sensitive manner in which he has allowed contemporary images to encroach on his original work so sparingly. The additions answer questions we would wish to know about how the place has matured and survived without detracting form the original book. We learn that they’re “not doing too badly”, they “don’t have to conform” and that Owens hasn’t been the only artist to walk in their midst: “Hockney painted this pool”.
I think this new edition of Bill Owens wonderful book is slightly better than the original. Having both editions I find that although the halftone screen is less than the original (first edition was over 200, this edition is 170) the printing quality and paper are better, giving the photos more depth. After all these years the images still look fresh and fascinating and the amount of detail the photos contain is amazing. As far as I am aware no other book comes close in capturing the feel of the American suburb of thirty odd years ago.
The book is always favourably mentioned in photo history books as an example of the 'new topography' with photographers like Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and Stephen Shore and the critics suggest that the citizens of this suburbia lead superficial lives because they live there. But they can't get round the fact these folk, living in Livermore Amador Valley, California, or perhaps three thousand miles away in Levittown, Long Island enjoy the life-style of suburban living and Owens photos capture this feeling so well.
On the visual strength of 'Suburbia' I bought another book of Bill Owens photos, 'Working: I do it for the money', published in 1977, a super collection of photos showing Americans at work and Like 'Suburbia' it includes many observations from those in the photos. Well worth searching out for.