Robert Hirsch
Light & Ink

Bill Owens: Photographing the Suburban Soul
Interview by Robert Hirsch

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RH: Has anything changed for those wanting to make social statements and meet their family obligations?

BO: No. I’m a socially concerned photographer ala Robert Capa. I wanted to change the world and make it better. It comes from my fascination with culture. I wanted people to be aware of the crass consumerism of the American culture, but young people are not taught to have social concerns. The emphasis is on being financially successful. Plus there is too much to do, and people can’t sort it out. Look in the Sunday paper, and there are a zillion things to go do. Why be socially concerned when you can go out and have fun?

RH: Would you become a photographer today?

BO: I don’t know that I would. I have been in the brewing business and now I’m president of the American Distilling Institute.

RH: What happened to Buffalo Bill’s Brewery?

BO: It’s still going, but I sold it in 1998. Sixteen years was enough. I had to be open 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s way too draining.

RH: How do you respond to the critique that most of the people in Suburbia are white?

BO: That’s what the suburbs were and are. Near me now is Chinese suburbia, but you cannot tell the difference. They shop at the same stores. In my town we have a Buddhist temple next to a mosque and a half-mile down the road is a Catholic cemetery. Only in America can those things co-exist. That is the beauty of it.

RH: What about where you live now?

BO: Here in Haywood, CA we have about a 55 percent minority population consisting of Mexicans, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. It’s a cross-cultural experience. It’s good, and we should get on with that.

RH: Do you think the desires in suburban areas have changed over the last 30 years?

BO: No. We live in a society that is inundated by the materialism. People are still getting married, having children and need a washer and dyer and two cars in the garage.

RH: How long did it take you to photograph Suburbia?

BO: I was married, and I had a child. I selected one day a week to shoot for a year; 52 Saturdays and I got it done.

I don’t feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect on his personality...1971, Bill Owens

RH: What did you learn as you went through the photographic process?

BO: I would study the contact sheets and prints and then go back to the John Collier shooting script again and look for the holes, the places where I failed. For instance, I didn’t include a birthday party. I went to a few and they were totally chaotic. Finally the right moment unfolded and I was out of film. By the time I reloaded the camera the moment was past and I didn’t have time to go to another party. It was also critical to review the shooting script to see if I got the right overview. It takes months to find it. You have to keep making sure you have the long shot, the medium shot, and the close up.

RH: Did you think cinematically?

BO: You might say that, but I never studied movies. I got it from John Collier’s Visual Anthropology: Photography As a Research Method. Collier not only discussed land use, but also introduced me to the concept of ecology.

RH: How much of this thinking was influenced by Roy Stryker?

BO: It’s all commingled, but Stryker didn’t write the book. I was raised on a farm and we would get together with our neighbors at the community center for potluck dinners. That was the beginning of it for me, that sociology of a community.

RH: Do you see Starbucks functioning as our new community center?

BO: Absolutely. I belong to the local chamber of commerce. It takes time to know everybody in your community. When I go downtown and I go to Joe the barber, Joe knows me because of my brewery and my antique store. I am part of the fabric of this town. They know me.

RH: How did your business skills enable you to do Suburbia?

BO: I am interested in structure. I know how to organize, plan, and make things happen.

RH: As in Documentary Photographer: A Personal Point of View (1978)?

BO: Yes, It was self-published and includes my Guggenheim application, how to write a grant, and how to do a shooting script. I show how to use a strobe and what happens when you don’t. “Dark light” gives a different meaning to a photograph and dark photographs don’t fly for Suburbia. You want the strobe lights to make the image well lit so that it can easily be read. I also put out Publish Your Photo Book: A Guide to Self-Publishing (1979).

RH: What other books influenced your working style?

BO: The Life Library of Photography (1970). In one of the books the editors compared two photographs of a hardhat construction worker. One made with 35mm and a second with 2-1/4. The 35mm image appears menacing while the 2-1/4 looks “documentary.” There are more tones and texture, and it communicates a bigger meaning. It convinced me to jump to the 2-1/4 format. For me it was critical to have the subtlety of the flash fill and bare bulb flash with the Pentax 6 x 7 negative, a combination that brought out detail and depth. This made the pictures open and non-threatening. Had I shot Suburbia with 35mm it would have communicated a very different meaning.

RH: What is important for young people in the field to know today?

BO: I don’t know how you become a photographer. There are many fabulous young photographers producing at a high level of sophistication, but can they last 30 years? It’s not a normal life. You have to travel a lot and make work to please others. Nothing drives you crazier than working on an assignment and then having the client hate your images. I have a Christopher Morley adage on my wall: “There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way.” I’ve lived it my way.

For more on Bill Owens and to see some of his mini movies visit:

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