Bill Owens’ Suburbia became an underground, photo insider classic at the time of its original 1973 publication. This is the “New & Improved” 2002 edition, though I’m not quite sure what is new and/or improved about it.
If you’re unfamiliar, Owens cast his camera on the denizens of three communities Livermore, CA, while working as a staff photographer for the local newspaper. Owens collected quotes from many of his subjects (or, presumably, people just outside of frame) and the quotes appear below many of the photographs, earnest and honest and, now 45 years on, both laughable and wounding.
I bought this on the suggestion of someone on Twitter, after I despaired of making decent photographs in the place where I live, this beautiful custom home in a neighborhood of custom homes of various flavors of beauty, about 200 yards from a small trailer park and maybe 150 yards from a neighborhood of 1960s and 70s era tract homes on the outskirts of a suburb of Dallas.
While Suburbia hasn’t really given me any actionable ideas, it’s a deeply enjoyable book. The people and interiors look like shiny new versions of places I lived and visited as a small child, though by the early 1980s, the deep shag carpets were mostly gone (I crawled around on a green shag rug as a kid), but the velvety living room suites and big hair and Tupperware and Big Wheels and hanging out in front of the garage in lawn chairs watching the cars go by still remained.
Also gone, from my childhood memory anyway, was the sense of hope, optimism, good fortune, and pure joy that so many of the people Owens photographed seem to feel about their new homes.
Sure, economic worries bubble under the surface, but the neighbors gather together for 4th of July parades and Caroling, and the kids play with guns in the street while older people hot tub with wine out back, and most everyone is smiling.
Those same people (or contemporary versions thereof) voted for Trump and hate me and my wife, either because they disapprove of miscegenation (my darling, adorable wife is Bengali, and I’m a boring-ass Caucasian from Keller, Texas) or Islam (I can pass, but my darling wife wears a hijab and eschews leggings and short shorts for long, loose trousers and skirts, paired with baggy tops, thus marking herself as other).
The lone African American in the book, a young woman standing in her kitchen says
I enjoy the suburbs. They provide Girl Scouts, PTA, Little League, and soccer for my kids. The think I miss most is Black cultural identity for my family. White middle-class suburbia can’t supply that. Here the biggest cultural happening has been the opening of two department stores.Owens, Bill. Suburbia. Fotofolio, New York, 1999. p. 54
And now, the department stores only close, and I have no idea what the big cultural happenings are. Maybe the circus in the mall parking lot? There’s a 4th of July parade downtown. shrugs
Really, it’s me. I’m an introvert and a malcontent. I suppose I’m now older than most of the people Owens photographed, and I’m much like the lone African American woman in Owens’ book. I’m the only white, native Texan in this neighborhood and the various cultural happenings here are foreign. A different person could do great things with the access I have.
Owens had the benefit of being one of the tribe, as it were, and a newspaper man, a professional photographer at that. I’m a researcher and low level manager with a part time photography (and photobook) habit.
And this review has turned into navel gazing again. Good times.
I picked up this copy of Suburbia for cheap, and you can too. Bookfinder currently has prices ranging from $15.25 (roughly half of the cover price) to $150.77, so it’s widely available.