Suburbia Revisited

by Claudia Zanfi

During the time after the Second World War the so-called Californian ‘sunshine state’ saw some important suburban development: this is when the famous ‘Levitt towns’ began to spring up on vast tracts of uninhabited land as the urbanisation process was being carried out. At that time, Bill Owens was a keen young photographer who found himself right in the middle of this very important social phenomenon. He witnessed the droves of migrants who were heading off for the ‘wonderful West’. It is quite incredible how many people moved into those ‘smiling’ suburbs: it has been calculated that up until 1980 more than 60 million Americans moved from the cities to the outskirts. Owens and his camera were there, and this is how he began documenting the development of those places, studying the architecture of the houses, their interiors and capturing the feeling of optimism among their inhabitants. His stance is neither critical or derisive of the society that was spreading out from those large built-up urban centres. He is particularly fond of the work of the Farm Security Project, and the work of Dorotea Lange, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans and Weegee.

Bill Owens’ photographs show ‘the American way’ of living everyday life, which in those years served as a standard to export to all parts of the globe. The photographer portrays his neighbours, friends, relatives, suburban communities, the police and schools, and in so doing creates a panoramic picture of contemporary American society. Owens’ straightforward, often one-to-one approach, draws together images of the ‘American Dream’ from the 60’s to today as experienced by the middle classes. His research does not really dwell on formal and aesthetic values; he is more concerned with a sort of ‘visual anthology’.

‘Suburbia,’ the most well-known series of photographs, portrays people in their comfortable homes, surrounded by a protective wall that keeps the hostile desert landscape out. Society runs smoothly within these walls: life is easy. Here we can see relatives coming round for dinner in air conditioned houses, where the electrical appliances match the furniture perfectly and piped music soothes the air; outside well-kept gardens play host to barbecues with friends at the weekend, nothing wanders far from these familiar and peaceful paths. Life is somewhat different on the other side of the wall: dusty roads, heat, chaos, noise and discomfort. Indoors everything is peaceful and under control, outside there is the unknown. These privileged residential communities cannot remain enclosed in these spaces forever; sometimes they have to leave paradise behind to go to work, to school, to do the shopping, to the gym, or to see a football match. Every now and again the wall is opened to let outsiders into the ‘community’. These come in the form of hundreds of workers, watched over by the local ‘supervisors,’ who make sure that the lawns are trimmed, the municipal flowerbeds planted (they are all exactly the same, without exception), the swimming pools cleaned and the rubbish collected. These people work from 9 to 5 to get enough money to make ends meet. By including them as the subjects of his photographs, Bill Evans tells their story, too.

These environments, surroundings, accessories, even the hairstyles represent a sense of belonging to a class and social group. Bill Owens shows us how the desires and aspirations of every American are defined and reinforced when they meet the group. In Suburbia, as in Our Kind of People, or in Working (I do it for the money), the individual derives reassurance from living alongside other respectable citizens who have the same lifestyle and think in the same way. The individuals that make up each of these ‘micro communities’, are encouraged to conform to a pre-established order, and respect precise rules. Any deviation could give rise to a desire in another member of the group and shatter that ‘apparent identity,’ causing unease and tension, thus upsetting the balance.

Bill Owens’ photographs give us back a certain peace of mind by transforming this tension into irony. If the groups’ identity is built around and reinforced with the loss of identity of one of its number, Owens brings to light the qualities and defects of that individual by observing details and focusing on differences. With Owens, we gain access to the other side of the ‘wall’ that shields the residents from the outside world and its prying eyes; he lets us penetrate that world and meet its inhabitants face-to-face. Sometimes we smile as we look at the poses and behaviour of members of a certain religious group and esoteric sects, sports fanatics, fun-lovers, the inhabitants of a luxury residence, or groups of workers.

This sweetened picture of suburbia recalls billboard posters. Shifting our glance towards the people who work brings this ‘two-dimensional’ world to life. For the last ten years the photographer has been busy in the same vein, working towards a huge social panorama Leisures. Americans at play: an analysis of American behaviour at large sporting events. The reconstruction of images of everyday life certainly has a lot of mileage left. Bill Owens still has a lot to tell.