Bill Owens (American, born 1938)
Our house is built with the living room in the back, so in the evenings we sit out front of the garage and watch the traffic go by, 1962
Gelatin silver print 6 1/8 in. x 8 in. (15.56 cm x 20.32 cm)
Crocker Art Museum Purchase1979.9.1
The 1960s was the decade of Mel Ramos’s comic book heroes, Wayne Thiebaud’s pies, and Robert Arneson’s funky typewriter with fingers for keys. Photography was not immune to the influence of popular culture on American life thanks to the keen eye of one Californian, Bill Owens. In 1968, Owens joined the staff of the Livermore Independent, a weekly for the historic community that had been transformed into a Bay Area suburb. Senior centers, pageants, lodge halls, and chambers of commerce were among his subjects. From these encounters, he distilled the concept of documenting the everyday activities of his friends and neighbors. His treatment of suburbia was notable in that it did not reiterate suburbia as an American norm, but established that it too was its own peculiar subculture.
This image was selected for the original cover of Owens’s first photography book, Suburbia, published in 1973, which sold more than 20,000 copies, making it a sensation. Today Suburbia and other Owens’s series such as Our Kind of People (1976) and Working: I Do It for the Money (1977) have been reissued. What struck a chord with so many then as now is the deadpan comedy of Owens’s delivery. Quotes from his subjects are separated from the conversational context to serve as captions to the images. Even the most unassuming moments of daily life, such as this family relaxing on their driveway, becomes disarmingly idiosyncratic when we learn of their reasoning.