In 1972, Bill Owens took a camera and explored Livermore, Calif., every Saturday for one year, resulting in one of the most well-known series of photos on contemporary American life: Suburbia. Owens captured a time and place that seemed to illustrate the American Dream of the early ’70s generation, where suburbanites’ social mobility and economic comfort were valued above most everything else.
Currently on exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art, the collection is described by curator Diana Turnbow: “Most of the people who Owens photographed were young, confident and enjoying a quality of life unattained by previous generations ... The images in this exhibition illustrate that suburbia’s paradox—aspiring to the good life, while remaining conscious of its limitations— has become a defining element of the American experience.”
Each photo (“Big Wheel” is pictured) is accompanied by a caption written by the people Owen immortalized. Such statements as, “One of the joys of living in the suburbs is taking care of your lawn” illustrate the values that arose in that moment of American consumerism, where one was judged by the color of one’s grass. Another photo of a woman going through her bills at a table says, “If only Bank of America knew…” Such a statement today has an ominous ring to it as we look back at American consumer debt in its infancy.
Suburbia is a subversive take on the ticky-tackbox boundaries devised by a growing conformity in the aftermath of the 1960s, providing insight to our plight for the good life today with irony and comic subtlety.