Photographer Bill Owens got his start in Livermore and his iconic images of living and working in the East Bay created his prolific career
Stand next to Bill Owens at Costco, and you probably won’t recognize him as one of the world’s most famous photographers.
Now, drop “Bill Owens photographer” into Google on your iPhone. You’ll find links to his portfolio in Life magazine, exhibitions around the world, and blurbs on his world-famous books—and you’ll start to see the impact Owens has had on the art world. You’ll also realize why Owens sees something beautiful in those giant boxes of Cheerios and reams of toilet paper in your shopping cart.
“I’ve always been interested in photography as sociology,” says Owens, 71. “I’m particularly fascinated by Americans’ unending desire to consume products and eat lots of food.”
Owens’ career began in 1969, when he was hired as a photographer for the Livermore Independent. Two months into the gig, he
photographed the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Pass. “Altamont still takes me around the world,” he says. “A gallery in Amsterdam recently did a huge show of those pictures.”
In the early 1970s, Rolling Stone published his shots of Tri-Valley suburban life, first as a photo essay in the magazine and later as a well-reviewed and still-in-print book, Suburbia. Owens’ photos—50 of which are on permanent display in the Livermore Library—capture backyard barbecues, square dances, Tupperware parties, strip mall openings and “the general culture shock of suburban development in the East Bay.”
Guggenheim grant followed Suburbia, as well as books about work and leisure. In the ’80s and ’90s, Owens opened a trio of East Bay brewpubs and launched Distiller magazine. A true Renaissance man—artist, brewer, distiller, publisher, writer—the Hayward resident spends more time researching whiskey distillation than taking pictures these days. But he’s still in high demand in Manhattan and Paris, where exhibitions of his photos of suburban life in the Tri-Valley delight art lovers.
In September, Owens will embark on his next creative endeavor—retracing a round-the-world voyage he took at age 21. “I left home with $900 in my pocket, made it to France, the Middle East, and Africa, before wiring home from Japan to ask my mom for $300 for a return ticket,” he says, laughing. “I’ll be traveling a bit more comfortably this time.”
Diablo asked Owens to share some of the stories behind his iconic photographs.
And CLICK HERE to see an extended gallery from the early work of Bill Owens.
Suburbia published 1973
“These photographs are visualizations of what the American Dream looked like in the ’70s—to have a house with a lawn and some nice neighbors on your block. Sunsetown (page 56) was a development of new, cheap homes in Livermore. This couple (above) is eating dinner at the bottom of their almost-finished swimming pool. They are now divorced.”
“This picture took me a full year to get right. I had been looking for the perfect spot to capture a Fourth of July block party for a while. I showed up at this cul-de-sac but at 4 p.m., when everyone was going home. So I came back the next year at 11 a.m. That’s my VW Beetle in the top right corner of the frame.”
“This shot of an Allstate insurance salesman is a ghost image to an Edward Hopper painting from 40 years earlier. Identical composition and content—a man at a desk, with a woman secretary assisting. But I did not see the Hopper painting until long after I had taken this. I thought, ‘Oh my God! He ripped me off!’ ”
“In the mid-’70s, these Japanese cars were less popular in suburbia than American models. The reason I went into Ozzie Davis Toyota in Livermore was to show the stuffed heads that Davis had shot. The idea of someone going to Africa to kill animals and then displaying them in a place of business is ... remarkable.”
“If you had the money, here’s what you would do for your kid’s eighth birthday—have a party at Farrell’s Ice Cream in Fremont. They’d ring a bell and sing a song, and run around the place with this massive bowl of ice cream on a gurney—which the kids gobbled down in minutes, and then bounced off the walls on a sugar high. Still, it seems wholesome.”
Leisure, published 2005
“This boy lived on my block in Livermore. He wanted to show off his new pet parakeet, and when I went into his room, I saw all these incredible models of World War II planes hanging from his ceiling. So, I quickly switched to a wide-angle lens and crouched down on the floor to get the boy’s face with the bird and the bedroom ceiling in the frame.”
“Here we have Frank Dill of KNBR radio interviewing the Easter Bunny at Diablo Country Club. This was a tough assignment for the newspaper because I could not control the subjects at all. I had been sent to the event to get a shot of the famous golfer Lee Trevino, but he was way out on the back nine of the course. So, I tried to get an interesting snapshot of the scene, instead.”
“I usually shot fast on 35-millimeter film, but I took the time to set this one with an 8-by-10, large format camera. This couple from Canyon had answered an ad I put in the newspaper, asking for couples to be photographed in their home.”