Suburbia by Bill Owens

A book dropped through the letter box today. An updated version of a 1970’s photographic classic, Suburbia by Bill Owens.

At first glance, it seems a rather cynical view of America emerging after the war. Of course, in western philosophy, cynicism is considered to be a kind of wisdom but when one is using the images of unsuspecting people to make the statement, I am not sure this is so. There is an obvious similarity to the work of Martin Parr who came after Owens and did something similar in the UK by parodying the up and coming classes.

One needs to look a little further though to see what this book is really about and the introductory essay by David Halberstam helps set the context of a post-war America that was experiencing a housing boom. Whatever one might make of the images here, they do stand out as a record of a particular time in the social history of the USA and are unique in that case; the attempt to picture extraordinary events with the camera can lead one to overlook the ordinary that won’t be ordinary for long. Many of Owen’s images are dated but still readable; they have moved on beyond their production dates and now speak of history.

However, the theme of the book which is domesticity and all that comes with it is not of course dated and so the subject of the book keeps its relevance.¬†Halberstam is right it seems when he talks of the photographers “empathy” with his subjects; however much the viewer might find the subject distasteful, it is something that many people were happy if not proud to be part of and something that others are experiencing today in other parts of the world.

Bill Owens did not act condescendingly to his subjects as other critics did towards the members of this new movement, he responded with respect and captured an historical era. This is not a view shared by some members of the press such as The New York Times that said “What we have here is a bourgeois hog heaven”, a view that appears on the back of the book.

An interesting addition to the revised book is a small red “stick on” star that one sees on both front and back covers; this is the kind of item one might expect to see in a supermarket advertising a product, a far cry from this book’s message.

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