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Arts and Entertainment

Suburbia Never Looked So Good

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“The known center of the universe is Ikea… the whole world is built on consuming and shopping,” local photographer Bill Owens quipped yesterday during a discussion of his photographic odyssey of 1970s suburban sprawl.

Owens’ lecture at the USC graduate school of art was the trial run for presentations he will be giving at the MOCA Pacific Design Center today at 3 pm on his solo exhibit and The Getty on Sunday for the Public Faces/Private Spaces group show.

This LAist got the rare opportunity to hear the renown artist speak about his work; no guessing games as to the “meaning” behind these witty black and white images—if I had a question I could just wave my hand and ask. Having grown up in the ‘burbs (Fayetteville, Arkansas to be exact), I felt a perverse connection to Owens and his photographs, akin to my love of the melancholy repetoire of Southerner William Eggleston and the tongue-in-cheek snapshots from EnglishmanMartin Parr.

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(Read more about photographer Bill Owens & his vision of suburbia after the jump)

Owens rocketed to fame with his first book, “Suburbia,” that captured the nuances of everyday life in the 1970s. He favored tract homes and what they contained: crushed velvet paintings, Tupperware parties, and giant rolls of “instant lawn” sod -- nothing was too ordinary. Shot entirely in Livermore Amador Valley, California where Owens worked for a small newspaper, the book remains popular today because it reminds older generations of their past and holds kitsch value for contemporary consumers.

Owens served as a guide to what seems like a miraculous yet tacky land, describing suburbia as a place where people “furnish their homes in one step” and “people fight over how to load the dishwasher.” There is a fresh-faced innocence to these post-WWII families that saw swimming pools and station wagons as marks of middle class success.

“You’re not American if you don’t have Cheerios in your house… if you don’t have Nesquik you must live in China,” Owens said while describing a photo of a pantry chockfull of boxed and canned goods. “Nowadays people wouldn’t eat Crisco, you’d be dead in a week.”

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Most compelling are the captions accompanying the images contained in “Suburbia”. Text accompanying an image of a woman watering a toilet outdoors reads: "Before the dissolution of our marriage my husband and I owned a bar. One day the toilet broke and we brought it home." A photo of a young woman carrying her baby while watering the lawn is paired with the following: "My husband, Pat, has a theory about watering our newly seeded lawn. The water has to trickle from heaven and fall like tender little rain drops... otherwise the lawn won't grow properly." The captions seem like a joke, but they are actually comments from the subjects on the final photos.

Despite the popularity of "Suburbia" and subsequent books, Owens said he couldn't "give away" the photos he took -- no one wanted shots of their kitchen sink or the silverware drawer, they craved studio portraits that they could put on their mantels. Even with the recognition of Owens as an iconic American photographer, only four of the original subjects showed up for a recent launch party; he said the rest were "too busy" or just not interested.

Thirty years after his initial success Owens continues to work, this time focusing not on middle America, but on everyone's favorite topic: food. The tightly cropped close ups of strips of bacon and biscuits swimming in gravy remove the subjects from their context, giving them a surreal feel. He also has kept up with changes in technology and has happily made the switch from film to cut costs and for convenience. "Digital makes photography fun," Owens said of his switch from the clunky large format cameras he used in the past. A perfectionist striving for that one good shot, Owens used to shoot subjects five or six times until he got it right.

The photographer's next appearance could be in a suburb near you -- he admitted a fascination for Bed, Bath & Beyond and joked that he takes pictures "every day" at the post office.

Both images from "Suburbia" © Bill Owens.