Selections from ‘Suburbia’ by Bill Owens, 1973

 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 PolicewomanStarsky and HutchPetrocelli, 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.

5 thoughts on “Selections from ‘Suburbia’ by Bill Owens, 1973

  1. Great photos and even better discussion. I wish I could have a more vivid recall of 1973, but I was only 2-3 years old so there’s not a lot for me to remember…

    As a native Westside angeleno myself, these photos remind me of Westchester when I moved there in 1980. It was a clean, quiet and sparkling neighborhood full of mostly ’50s and ’60s homes and green, green, well-manicured lawns. The Mighty 690, KLOS 95.5 and KIQQ were the soundtracks of our lives, and I’d ride my BMX bike with Journey, Blondie and Gary Numan songs running through my head. I went to the local bowling alley with a pocket full of quarters ($1-2 tops) to play arcade games…and I didn’t even have to lock my bike. I did what everyone else did…simply flip them upside-down to stand on the handlebars and seat.

    In the summer, friends would come knocking on my door and asking my folks if I could “come out and play.” And we would…all day. We rode in the streets and empty dirt lots. We gathered scraps of wood, cinder blocks and plywood and made jumps which we’d take turns launching off of with our BMX bikes to see who “got the most air.” We had dirt-clod fights. We played ditch and hide-and-go-seek. We played “war” and shot each other with toy guns, trying to outdo each other with spectacular, dramatic, well-acted “deaths.” We blew up stuff with leftover firecrackers and/or M-80s. We hopped the school fences and skated the banks within.

    The only real cue for us to come home was basically when the streetlights came on, and I’d come in, sweaty, dirty and sunburnt from the day’s activities. My mom would send me straight to the shower and I’d eat dinner afterwards. I’d play Atari and force myself to stay up late (11pm!) to watch Benny Hill, or, in later years, the Paul Hogan show.

    We went to garage sales on the weekends. My dad would show me how to use “reverse psychology” and not show any hint of excitement or desire even if I saw something totally cool and cheap. Instead, he’d tell me to look for every possible flaw in an item and to point it out so that I could get it at a lower price. Yes, my dad’s frugal like that. He would see something for $2 and ask if he could get it for $.50. And you know what? Most of the time it worked. But one time a guy got mad and told him to go away. Everyone looked at us annoyed and I was embarrassed.

    Yup, it never did seem to rain back then, although there were seasons. Nowadays, everything just kinda merged together, and it’s hardly ever too hot or too cold. It just kinda stays in the middle, and every now and then, some crazy spike will happen and everyone will panic.

    Wow. I didn’t think those pictures would unleash all those memories, but they did. Thanks, I guess?

    • “As a native Westside angeleno myself, these photos remind me of Westchester when I moved there in 1980. It was a clean, quiet and sparkling neighborhood full of mostly ’50s and ’60s homes and green, green, well-manicured lawns. The Mighty 690, KLOS 95.5 and KIQQ were the soundtracks of our lives, and I’d ride my BMX bike with Journey, Blondie and Gary Numan songs running through my head. I went to the local bowling alley with a pocket full of quarters ($1-2 tops) to play arcade games…and I didn’t even have to lock my bike. I did what everyone else did…simply flip them upside-down to stand on the handlebars and seat.

      In the summer, friends would come knocking on my door and asking my folks if I could “come out and play.” And we would…all day. We rode in the streets and empty dirt lots. We gathered scraps of wood, cinder blocks and plywood and made jumps which we’d take turns launching off of with our BMX bikes to see who “got the most air.” We had dirt-clod fights. We played ditch and hide-and-go-seek. We played “war” and shot each other with toy guns, trying to outdo each other with spectacular, dramatic, well-acted “deaths.” We blew up stuff with leftover firecrackers and/or M-80s. We hopped the school fences and skated the banks within.

      The only real cue for us to come home was basically when the streetlights came on, and I’d come in, sweaty, dirty and sunburnt from the day’s activities. My mom would send me straight to the shower and I’d eat dinner afterwards. I’d play Atari and force myself to stay up late (11pm!) to watch Benny Hill, or, in later years, the Paul Hogan show.”

      This was my summer of 1982 – just substitute MN for CA, DEVO for Numan, and Intellivision for Atari…

      • DEVO! How could I forget. Yup, I hear that for sure. What was your favorite radio station in MN?

        Intellivision always had better graphics than Atari, I always thought. My best friend had Intellivision, and he was a master at Triple Action!

        • The most popular (or maybe era-defining?) station in MN at that time was 99.5 WLOL. Here is a sample from 35 years ago today (Friday, 7 May 1982 – early afternoon to early evening CDT). The Human League, Little River Band, Kool and the Gang…

          [audio src="http://www.radiotapes.com/WLOL/WLOL-FM_5-7-1982_Hammer_Thompson_Wong.mp3" /]

          “Triple Action” – biplane combat was maybe one of the best two-player games for the system. Many tournaments with friends just like in the video below.

          • Oh yeah, that brought back all kinds of memories. My buddy had mastered this “signature” technique of somehow stalling out his plane at the ceiling and letting it erratically drop downwards. Just when I think he’d be most vulnerable at that point, he’d fire off some rounds at just the right time to nail me. It was super hard to counter that technique.

            Another cool game was Discs of Tron …or was it just Tron?

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