Bill Owens is rediscovering an artistic medium that he thought he had left behind more than 20 years ago. Owens made his mark on the art world in the 1970s with “Suburbia,” a collection of photographs that documented suburban life in Livermore, California. The book won him critical acclaim, including a prestigious Guggenheim Award. But by the time Owens was working on his fourth book, money ran out, and he decided to follow other paths in order to pay the bills.
More than 20 years later, the reissue of “Suburbia” in 1999 brought new interest in Owens’s achievements, providing the artist with fresh opportunities. Spark checks in on the Bay Area photographer as he mounts an exhibition of his photographs and short films at the Berkeley Art Museum.
After giving up photography in the 1980s, Owens turned to teaching as well as a variety of odd jobs and business enterprises to make ends meet. He even sold his cameras to raise some extra money. But the renewed acclaim for Owens’s work after the reissue of “Suburbia” enabled him to publish his unfinished Leisure collection. He also decided to return to photography, now made cheaper and more accessible by digital technology.
When he discovered that his new digital cameras could also be used to make short videos, Owens began exploring the possibilities of motion pictures. He now has a collection of short films that he directed, shot and edited entirely himself. Like his still images, his short videos are meditations on daily routines, capturing the commonplace realities of everyday life.
Recently, Owens has returned to a subject that was conspicuous in his earlier series in the 1970s – food. Spark follows the artist to the Berkeley Bowl market, where Owens collects images for a photo essay and new book dedicated to what and how we eat. As they did with his “Suburbia” series, Owens’s photos still endeavor to capture American habits directly, honestly and without judgment.
After graduating from California State University at Chico in 1963, Bill Owens began to pursue photography while serving in the Peace Corps. In 1968, he landed a job as a newspaper photographer for the “Independent News” in Livermore, where he was assigned the daily beat of the suburban activities of his friends and neighbors. He published his first book, “Suburbia,” in 1972, which was followed by “Our Kind of People” (1976), “Working” (1978) and “Leisure” (2004).