A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing an original Bill Owens photograph at the Getty Museum here in Los Angeles. I hadn’t even known that the photo was there, so it was a great surprise, because Bill Owens just happens to be my favorite photographer.
Below is the very first Bill Owens photograph I ever saw. It was in a photo magazine, I think. It immediately stood out to me. The mood of the moment is so relatable: two friends who were obviously riding their bikes around town on a hot summer day decided to hang out on the sidewalk next to a shop for a little while. Every kid does this. The atmosphere is so youthful and summery that I’ve always remembered it.
That picture is from Bill’s most famous collection of photographs, Suburbia. He basically went around taking pictures of regular Americans in the 1970s, and the work he produced is so so so so so so so so so so incredible. Literally every person he photographed is bursting with character, and I want to know every one of the stories behind the images. Many times, something that makes the pictures even more mesmerizing are their captions. Things like “I really love him”, “Everything we own is inside this room”, and “I’ve been working here for fifty years” just add so much to a photograph. It’s amazing.
The details in these photographs mesmerize me. A ping-pong table in the corner of a garage, what sort of decorations people had on their walls, what food was on peoples’ plates…and of course, the amazing vintage clothes. There also seem to be an abundance of oddly-matched couples—more fascination.
Bill Owens’s Americans are happy, they’re sad, they’re dull, they’re pretty, they’re common, they’re bored, they’re hardworking. They are everything that humans are. In Bill Owen’s books, you’ll see old people dancing, couples who are obsessed with making their homes look perfect, exhausted housewives cooking, salesmen wasting their lives, and teenagers falling in love. It’s a world where there are Tupperware parties, fake lawn grass, and garage sales were wigs were sold. It’s like an episode of The Wonder Years, only these peoples’ lives most likely did not wrap up with a tidy little moral and lots of fondness.
Bill Owens is my favorite photographer for many reasons. He caters to my love of old things, for one, but he’s just so good at capturing life with his lens. It’s almost like he was simply a fly on the wall, but he’s still got a very signature style. You can spot a Bill Owens photograph anywhere.
Now if I can just own an original someday…