In the early 1970s photographer Bill Owens dug into suburbia almost like an anthropologist, even though he was essentially just taking pictures of his neighbors and acquaintances in California, near San Francisco.
The images certainly weren’t like anything you’d see in National Geographic, but there was still something alien about them. With his ironic eye and sense of humor, it was as though Owens had stepped through Alice’s Looking Glass — and brought his camera. This slice of suburban America turned out to be wry and sometimes even otherworldly.
“(I see) things that others don’t in the banal and ordinary,” Owens says of his process, noting Walker Evans, photographer and chronicler of the effects of the Great Depression, as an early influence. “Most lives are mundane, but I make them extraordinary by infusing them with dignity.”
His look at the ‘burbs turned into the highly successful book “Suburbia” (1972), recognized as one of the most important photography books of the 20th century. Owens then published “Our Kind of People: American Groups and Rituals” in 1975.
Later he focused his lens on workers, as America made a transition from factory and farm work to office and service jobs. The result was the 1977 publication, “Working: I Do It for the Money.”
Owens and the late oral historian Studs Terkel found fertile ground in exploring the topic of employment in the 1970s almost simultaneously, as both were fascinated by probing and documenting the lives of ordinary people.
The efforts and artistry of the two men can be seen in “It’s Just a Job: Bill Owens and Studs Terkel on Working in 1970s America,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick through Sunday, July 29.
The exhibit was organized by Hannah Shaw, an intern and PhD candidate in the department of art history at Rutgers, assisted by Donna Gustafson, curator of American art at the Zimmerli and director of academic programs.
This exhibition of 31 photographs from Owens’ “Working” series celebrates a recent gift to the museum by Robert Harshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner in honor of the class of 1968. The photos are taken from Owens’ 1977 book and are juxtaposed with recordings of interviews conducted by Terkel from his own book, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day, and How They Feel About What They Do.” The audio selections were provided by the Studs Terkel Radio Archive.
The public is invited to hear Owens speak when the photographer gives an artist’s talk the evening of Tuesday, April 3.
It will be an interesting trek to the eastern U.S. for the 79-year-old Owens, a confirmed Californian. Of his youth, he says, “I used to look at Life magazine and think, ‘That’s what I’d like to do,’ but a little boy from Chico State (college) isn’t going to go to New York City and make it. New York is much too hostile for my kind of soul.”
Co-curator Shaw says she had admired Owens’ photography for a long time but only met him for the first time, by phone, while preparing “It’s Just a Job.”
“I was lucky to have just begun my year as the graduate curatorial assistant at the Zimmerli when the museum acquired a group of photographs by Owens,” Shaw says. “(Curator) Gustafson and I knew we wanted to dedicate an exhibition to Owens’ captivating and relevant photographs, and she gave me the opportunity to organize the show.”
“As a Chicago native I immediately began to think about Studs Terkel’s book on working in the 1970s, and the resonances between these two projects,” she says.
Whereas Terkel traveled the country wielding his trademark tape recorder, Owens preferred to shoot in California’s Bay Area (and sometimes Los Angeles), but both sought to understand the lives of regular people working as secretaries, salespeople, insurance agents, and factory workers.
In addition to capturing a certain spirit of the ‘70s, Owens’ and Terkel’s observations also touched on such themes as workplace discrimination due to race and gender, as well as workers’ instability and struggles due to the consequences of globalization.
During the 1970s the nature of work and our relationship with our jobs was shifting dramatically. Manufacturing and other “blue collar” occupations were starting to fade out, as factory work (and factories themselves), were being sent overseas.
Meanwhile, service, “white collar,” and early computer and high tech jobs were on the rise.
Thanks to the civil rights/equal employment movements, more women and people of color had access to the workplace, but still there was growing disillusionment with our occupations. The topic of meaningful employment became a national concern.
This subject is still quite important today, perhaps even more so. That’s why “It’s Just a Job” is so relevant now, says Shaw.
“In the wake of the Great Recession and the rise of new modes of employment, working in America is currently undergoing huge changes,” she says. “This makes looking back to the 1970s — another transitional period in American employment — both fascinating and vital.”
From factory workers to furniture salesmen to women in secretarial and data-entry positions, and even his own barber, Owens made ordinary people seem extraordinary. As he did with his previous projects, Owens wrote down quotes from his subjects and used them as captions, which painted an even more vivid portrait of the person’s relationship to and feelings about their job.
The images and the captions together also give subtle clues to a more complicated interpretation of working life in America.
For example, there’s the photo with the caption, “Being a receptionist is a catch-all job; you do everything,” which speaks to a time before women asserted themselves in the workplace, when the ladies took care of menial tasks for their male bosses.
It was not too long ago when women receptionists and secretaries also played certain “mother/wife/maid” roles not in the job description, such as planning parties, fetching dry cleaning, making coffee, ordering out, and/or bringing in homemade food — then cleaning up the lunch and break areas.
In the exhibit text, it’s noted that, “Though more women succeeded in entering the workforce during the decade, we now recognize that they were often limited to lower wage secretarial positions, beholden to the demands of male bosses and husbands.”
Conversely, men are portrayed as active, and their work more mentally stimulating. Take, for example, the man in the laboratory with the caption, “It takes a year to make a gyro-ball guidance system for the C-5A aircraft.” The image implies that this engineer’s labors will make an impact well beyond his place of work.
Incidentally, the photographs are also curious pop-culture time capsules, especially if you are interested in 1970s hair and clothing styles. The bulky desk computers on some of the shots seem prehistoric.
One is curious as to whether any of the subjects — male or female — actually seemed to like their jobs when Owens took their pictures all those years ago.
“You can’t make a generalization,” Owens says, speaking by phone from his home in Hayward, California. “I know there are photographers who focus on the lives of quiet desperation, but I don’t look at the downtrodden. Although I like to throw myself in with the sociologists, (look at) what it means to be an American.”
“I focus on people who look like me and act like me,” he continues. “I can’t go into a culture not like mine, but I can understand what it’s like to stand in line at the post office — and I can be anywhere and find a picture.”
“I started with my accountant and my barber, then I photographed some construction workers and zipper repairmen,” Owens says, explaining the origins of the “Working” project. “When I showed up at Levitt’s Furniture with a camera, I loved those salespeople; there was a lot of myself in them.”
The images in “It’s Just a Job” are not the stream-of-consciousness, urban street photography someone like Gary Winograd is known for, or even the intuitive, “decisive moment” style of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Owens planned out his days and nights of photography and knew exactly whom he was going to take pictures of. Sometimes things clicked, sometimes not.
“I’d have my shooting script and go to take photos, but sometimes there was no ‘there’ there, so I’d just move on,” he says. “Serendipity plays a huge role in a photographer’s life, and I’ve sometimes missed a shot by one second.”
Owens was born in San Jose, California, in September, 1938, and raised on a farm called Citrus Heights. Years before it had failed because it was too far north to grow oranges and lemons, so Owens’ parents bought the land at a greatly reduced price.
“A bad frost wiped it out in the 1930s,” Owens says. “My dad didn’t want to try to grow trees again, just have some cows and chickens, etc.”
He first attended college at California State College at Chico, where he took a photography class there and got disappointing grades. “When you’re only 19 or 20, you don’t have the maturity to see anything. It takes life experience to get an eye,” Owens says.
He earned a BA in industrial design from the school in 1963, then took off to hitchhike around the world. In 1964 Owens joined the Peace Corps and found himself stationed in Jamaica.
When he returned to the U.S. and enrolled at San Francisco State College, Owen had intended to formally study photography and earn a degree there, but he recognized the 1967-’68 culture shock around him and realized he wanted more real life experience.
“I got a job at San Francisco State’s Daily Gator (newspaper), and every day I was doing assignments, processing film and whatnot, then in the evenings, I was driving a cab in the city,” Owens says. “But then my wife was pregnant and I needed a better job, so I went to work for the Livermore Independent.”
Part of Owens’ beat was in the suburban developments around Livermore, where he saw that the farmland he loved was quickly disappearing. His instincts told him that there was something special to be mined among all those new ranch homes with the shag carpeting.
“Being in suburbia was also a culture shock for me,” he says. “I realized I was seeing a part of America I had never seen before, and I realized that National Geographic would never send anyone out to document this, it’s too boring — but I could dig.”
“Being a newspaper photographer was my entry, and I was taking photos at the Chamber of Commerce, the fire department, the Rotary Club, etc.,” Owens adds. “I realized I could take the most mundane event and make it into something.”
Owens raised enough money to launch his “Suburbia” project and was pleased but surprised when it all became such a sensation. His two other books followed, and he continued to do freelance photography and participate in exhibits until the end of the 1970s.
Around the beginning of the 1980s Owens became a pioneer in craft brewing, then craft distilling. In fact, it is believed that he had one of the first brew pubs in the country.
In 1982 Owens founded the highly successful Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, California, which he operated until the mid-1990s. Around the same time, he founded and published American Brewer magazine.
“I started home brewing when I was in college, and we had always made wine on the farm,” he says. “So I heard about the concept of a micro-brewery and a lightbulb went off. I’m a farm boy, and we know how to do things like this.”
According to his website biography, “Moved by the spirits, Bill went on to found the American Distilling Institute (ADI), the oldest and largest organization of small batch, independently owned distillers in the United States.”
Owens also launched American Distillery magazine. As founder and president, and one of the leading spokesmen for the craft distilling movement, he keeps a hand in the ADI’s website (www.distilling.com), sometimes posting his quirky photos from special events.
All the while, Owens continues to make, exhibit, and sell his photography. He also enjoys making short films on his iPhone, writing his memoirs, and working on a science fiction novel.
Add to all of the above an enjoyment of traveling around the country to see what’s out beyond the cities and suburbs and turning down dirt roads to discover who or what might be there.
“There’s nothing more fun than driving across America,” Owens says. “I was on the road in the Midwest and found a distiller who had an apple farm in the middle of nowhere. His mom and dad were still alive, and these were the sod-busters, the people who built that part of the country.”
“There’s no other way for this guy to make a living, but there’s his apple farm, so he’s harvesting apples and making apple brandy,” he continues. “When you meet these people, you see that they’re going back to basics, back to Colonial times. You’re dealing with people who still have dreams.”
It’s Just a Job: Bill Owens and Studs Terkel on Working in 1970s America, Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, July 29. Free. Artist’s talk, Tuesday, April 3, 5 p.m. 848-932-7237 or www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
For more info on Owens, visit www.billowens.com.