A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Revisiting the Photography of Bill Owens
by Matt Auerbach
IT’S A BLOCK party on the 4th of July. There are people milling in the street, umbrellas shading tables, a station wagon parked in the distance, orphaned bikes on the sidewalk and curb. In the foreground, a cheap, plastic recliner sits on a squared-off lawn, likely hauled over from that imported beach, the suburban swimming pool. Long shadows indicate the day is winding down.
We are looking from above at that suburban dead-end known as the cul-de-sac circa 1971, captured by the lens of Bill Owens, the Dorothea Lange of ’70s middle-class suburbia. Widening the aperture, you’d see many similar streets with manicured lawns and kids spilling from their bikes, skinning their knees while skidding to a stop, or, in my case, slamming into the back of my mother’s ’67 Mustang.
Beyond the obvious and cheesy time capsule appeal of Bill Owens’ photography, the images resonate by clinically documenting the quotidian routines of Livermore suburban homeowners. Owens doesn’t need to paint a wide swath. Rather, by training his camera on a specific subculture and (in an inspired stroke) allowing the subjects to write their own captions for the photos, he leaves the editorializing to the viewer (who may run with or discount or, if feeling smug, deride the subjects’ captions), while achieving the shutterbug’s invisibility that leaves him out of the picture.
Ticket to Ride
Since the ’20s, when the mass production of automobiles encouraged the first suburban commuting from New York City out to Long Island’s North Coast, home to an entrenched elite of estate owners bent on keeping the “rabble” out, through the first post-WWII planned community of Levittown, urbanites have been fleeing city centers in droves in search of what they perceive to be a measure of safety and tranquility. Straitjacketed in the San Fernando Valley in the ’70s, I was shuttled from home to school and back, with the occasional foray to the then-new mall, the Galleria, to sneak into Purple Rain or park atop Mulholland Drive on a Saturday night to smoke cloves and drink Moosehead with a friend until someone puked.
While I coped with the tedium of suburban living by trying to escape from it, Bill Owens’ photos reveal couples/families who are in it for the long haul. How can I not relate to some of these photos? Take the one of the little girl in pajamas, half-smiling on her bed while sprawled around her lie the seemingly ransacked contents of her room. If these are her formative years, doubtless she will chalk up a record for breaking and entering by the time she’s 12. The caption underneath, which reads, “I wanted Christina to learn some responsibility for cleaning her room, but it didn’t work,” is hilarious and ominous. Will there be a reprisal? Is the mother hovering outside the girl’s room, beyond the camera’s frame, waiting to scold her daughter? The girl’s half-smile encourages the viewer’s imagination to roam—is she simply shy, though eager to be photographed, or secretly pissed and plotting a bad seed’s revenge against her domineering mother? How is discipline meted out in this family?
Looney Tunes and the Devil in Rotary Phones
Consider that staple of suburban childhood, Saturday morning cartoons, as captured in the photo of two siblings parked on the living room carpet in front of a small TV set, backlit with unvarying sunlight through those shroudlike ’70s curtains associated with convalescent homes, a fireplace off to the side, and the sturdy coffee table littered with Life, TV Guide and National Geographic. The caption reads, “I don’t like the space walk. I want to see cartoons.”
The tone is set for potential sibling bloodshed over channel control. By shooting from behind, Owens suggests, without showing, the preoccupation on these kids’ faces as they check into their own world and out of this one. If the cartoon booster wins out, they will switch from The Flight of Apollo and experience the elasticity of cartoon time as characters defy all natural laws of physics, while the adults make house payments, hide VHS and Beta porn tapes on closet shelves, and pay utility bills.
While cartoons may rerun in syndication forever, it’s interesting to speculate on how fresh the ballyhooed American Dream must have seemed at the time: Work hard, buy a house in the suburbs, raise a family. In one photo of a relaxed couple in their kitchen, mother feeding a baby nearly dwarfed by a goblet of grapes in the foreground, the caption reads, “We’re really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food and we have a really nice home.” You look at the photo with 35 years of hindsight—refracted through Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan decade/debacle, the AIDS pandemic, etc.—and are intrigued by the simplicity of these good intentions. Never mind the dysfunction ’round the bend that may metastasize and destroy the fabric of this family—for the moment, these parents just want the best for their kid, even if their tacky taste in kitchen floors is an inauspicious start.
By contrast, the gripping photo of the woman with hair curlers standing in her kitchen, sink stacked with dirty dishes, frowning baby in her arms, captioned, “How can I worry about the damned dishes when there are children dying in Vietnam?” bluntly encapsulates both the tensions rending the country apart at that time, and the disconnect of living in a sheltered, sanitized neighborhood while young men were both killing and dying thousands of miles away at the behest of a deceitful administration. The point-blank caption lays it on the line: By virtue of living here, you have a stake in your country’s misguided actions—and no amount of soapy suds can clean off that grease.
My parents rarely spoke of politics, aside from my father’s remembrances of the Depression (I was born late) and a nod toward November 22, 1963, the day John Kennedy was assassinated. They voted Democrat and settled into a suburban life of middle-class inertia, with attendant two-car garage, languishing front lawn, rotary phones, and hideous orange-and-black oil rendering of a sailboat buckling in choppy waters above our green couch. For them, this package represented some measure of security: home, car, family, garish painting. While it’s easy to confuse security with a vital sense of place, Owens’ photos suggest that putting down roots in a fixed place might be the securest investment in a potential future community, but only if you get to know your neighbors.
Mall Sprawl and the End of the Line
Thirty years later, the Valley population has mushroomed, with malls spawning more malls to accommodate the consumer culture feeding frenzy. There are ever more parking structures since bikes and public transportation are still anathema to many, although awareness that a fix is needed is growing. The grassy field behind the elementary school where I used to act out the Incredible Hulk’s opening credit sequence has long since been paved over. The Galleria’s gotten a face-lift and the single theatres of my youth have been predictably converted into a clothing store, swap meet and corporate bookseller.
Bill Owens documented a time before multiplexes, before the excesses and subsequent crash-and-burn economy of the ’80s and the dot-com boom/bust. Now real estate prices have gone through the roof, downsizing is the houseguest threatening to take over the lease, and that IKEA kitchen table wobbles with every meal.
Walls. Floor. Kitchen. Lived-in bed. Leaking roof. Loose change-concealing couch pillows. As receptacles for our brief lives, are houses not also cable-equipped coffins that briefly let in light before that light is snuffed out? Perhaps this means the desire of succeeding generations to lay down roots in a sturdy foundation is as inevitable as the reclaiming of our bodies by the dirt beneath those houses.
1 There’s a quirky 1997 documentary about Levittown entitled Wonderland. Along with several illuminating interviews, you get to witness the spectacle of one star alumnus, Eddie Money, blasting his way through a millionth rendition of “Two Tickets to Paradise” for a benefit I’d gladly have taken one ticket to purgatory to skip.
2 In fact, with the zeal of fundamentalists, my parents would righteously proclaim that this painting was true art, which would be the equivalent of elevating so-called “smooth jazz” to the level of real music.
Lately, Matt Auerbach aspires to be a bounty hunter. For a small fee, he’ll graciously hunt down and handcuff you.