Exhibit / April 27, 2017
Object Name: Selected photographs from Suburbia by Bill Owens, 1973
Maker and Year: Bill Owens, Straight Arrow Press, 1973
Object Type: Photographs
Image Source: Bill Owens
Description: (Michael Grasso, Richard McKenna, K.E. Roberts)
MCKENNA: The shadow of America hung heavy over us British kids of the ’70s and ’80s. Or maybe I should say that the shadows were us—shadows of the better-built, better-planned, newer, more solid, more fun, more real USA, a place that wasn’t full of the bombed-out houses and bramble-covered air-raid shelters that still seemed to dominate our island landscape. We lapped up whatever products or images we could get our hands on from that massive magnifying mirror across the Atlantic, internalising it all—the sunshine, the cars, the stuff—and so looking at these pictures is strangely like looking at my own childhood as I tried to pretend to myself it was. Look at that living room, so similar to many of the ones I grew up around and yet so much less pokey, so much more relaxed. Those cars, those bizarre technologies we were constantly struggling to understand in cartoons and comics—pull carts, barbecues, six-packs—all in the middle of this massive, consequenceless nowhere where it was always warm and never rained. We lived in estates too, but nothing like these huge, smoothly landscaped labyrinths, low to the ground like military installations. Wow, what a place.
ROBERTS: This is where I grew up. I don’t remember any block parties, and we didn’t have a boat, but this is it. Owens took these photos in San Francisco’s East Bay, and I was raised in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, about 400 miles away. I had a Big Wheel, I played with toy guns, I sat on the shag carpet in front of the TV while my parents did whatever it was they did, my mom had Tupperware parties, my friends and I stayed out playing “ding dong ditch” or war or Star Wars until dark. It was a consequenceless nowhere that was always warm and never rained. Looking at these pictures, I realize that suburbia and nostalgia are a lot alike. They’re both so good at pretending to be true that truth itself becomes indefensible.
GRASSO: My suburban ’70s and ’80s upbringing was a little different from both of yours. I lived in the largely blue-collar, working class, ethnic Catholic, proximate suburbs of Boston. These neighborhoods were a little older than the sprawling California cul-de-sacs above, the homes a little more densely-packed, the front yards and driveways a little more festooned with bathtub Marys, marble lions and wrought iron railings, and Camaro IROCs. The suburbia of Bill Owens’s book was the suburbia I saw on the big screen, perhaps at one of the three drive-in movie theaters near my house growing up, all of which closed down around 1985. When I would watch a film like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or E.T. (1982), I would see Steven Spielberg’s famously uncanny portrayal of the sunny, spacious American suburbs (which he admitted was cribbed not only from his own Arizona childhood but also directly from Owens’s Suburbia). Sure, I rode around my neighborhood on bikes like Elliot and his friends, but it looked nothing like the wide-open boulevards and unfinished vistas from the big bike chase scene from E.T.
I definitely had a Big Wheel, though, and my family still had a Woodie, at least in the late ’70s. And yes, as an only child I crawled all around in the wayback. Car seats? Seat belts? What were those?
MCKENNA: I can only presume that what feels like an impossibly innate familiarity with these spaces must have come from the same sources Mike mentions—Close Encounters, especially, plus 1970s evenings spent watching episodes of Policewoman, Starsky and Hutch, Petrocelli, or The Rockford Files, where some white-collar schmuck living beyond his means would come home to the tract to find the heavies waiting for him in the darkened living room.
Perhaps what made them so vivid in our—or at least, in my—imagination was the way they resembled surreal transfigurations of things we Brits were familiar with from our own environment: we had bungalows, but bungalows were generally places you went to visit old people and sit on sofas with antimacassars. We had cars with wooden detailing, but they were absurd-looking, rust-prone throwbacks to the ’50s. And we had sprawling estates of houses—but ours were filled with practical, unglamorous boxes whose upstairs bedrooms peered down into the next-door-neighbour’s back garden. There was none of the muscular threat and promise that seemed implicit in the confident spread of their American counterparts, which felt like sets designed to generate drama on a grand scale and to make dreams manifest. And I still have absolutely no idea what kind of demographic they represent.
ROBERTS: My suburbia was a condo complex—the “units” weren’t nearly as big as the houses seen here, but they were situated in what seemed to me like endless acreage. I used to study the book of floor plans (my dad was on the board of directors for a short time, and he hated it) and dream about which “house” I would have when I grew up. On the development there was a “green belt,” a playground, a pool, a tennis court, all of it sheltered from the surrounding neighborhood, which was an actual suburb (as opposed to tract housing), where we were told “street gangs” roamed (I found out on a couple of painful occasions that the statement was not entirely untrue). I can’t believe it, but I found my unit. It’s the one on the right. It looks exactly the same.
It seems to be innate in Americans, this longing for both wide open places and inviolate privacy.
GRASSO: I want to pivot off this idea of shelter and borders and boundaries. As wide open as this landscape looks, given the flat, squat styling of the California ranch-style home, the overall feeling of these cul-de-sacs is one of separation. Dark wooden fences border each of the homes’ property; the yards are modest and the overall sense of the neighborhood is that it is predominantly concrete. George Carlin had a memorable routine about the suburbanite’s house being a “box” for all his “stuff,” and that’s the sense you get here. That block party is probably the most uncanny of all these Owens photos; I never got the sense that there were gatherings like this in California suburbs because, quite honestly, the landscape itself looks hostile to that sort of social gathering.
The interiors of these homes, the fashions, and the possessions have that messy quality that Spielberg called out in the interview I linked to above: “the yelling and the screaming and the mashed potatoes, the television on twenty-four hours a day, and the radio, the vacuum cleaner, and the neighbors walking on the grass, the fights in the backyard, the kids and the block parties.” And the interiors do have that rough-hewn yet contrived and calculated “organic” quality that was so common to design in the 1970s. But it also all looks rather cheap, doesn’t it? Irrespective of the 1970s styling. Again, speaking from my own upbringing, the homes that we lived in in the 1970s had that shag carpeting, those cheap metal-tube TV stands, that mix of old and new furniture. But when the 1980s arrived… well, my folks got aspirational. Wood grains and rough slate disappeared; in came brass features and gentle pastels on every surface (rugs, wallpaper, even the prints hanging on the walls). The yuppie decor ethos of minimalism had even made it to our little corner of “Archie Bunker land” by 1984.
MCKENNA: You two are right—these houses seem not just as far away as possible from the dangers of the urban environment, the inhabitants also seem about as far as it’s possible to be psychologically from one another while still maintaining a pretence of community. The mood is like some kind of colony in a spacious yet alien and vaguely hostile environment where we aren’t meant to be—a feeling that Spielberg (who at this point I suppose we have to recognise as the poet of these places), exploited in Poltergeist (1982), whose anodyne “Cuesta Verde” was built over an older culture’s graveyard. And yet it’s hard for me to be objective about these images because the yearnings they evoke in me are so powerful and because I’m so ignorant of what they would actually mean to anyone familiar with them. Perhaps what makes them so compelling is precisely that tension between their implicit optimism and isolation.