Art Review: Is life better in Suburbia? Check out Bill Owens” photographs

May 6, 2008 at 5:57 pm

“Flag”: by Bill Owens now showing at the Paul Paletti Gallery.
“Flag”: by Bill Owens now showing at the Paul Paletti Gallery.
‘Bill Owens: Suburbia’
Through May 30
Paul Paletti Gallery
713 E. Market St.

    Suburbia: the land of the spindly trees, SUVs and few (or no) sidewalks. Bill Owens has photographed this middle-class rush away from the city core since the 1970s. His images look all too familiar — many of us have called the suburbs home at some point in our lives.

    Owens started shooting the new developments because he noticed the land changing around his California home. The automobile-dependant, dream-of-a-better-life sprawl was documented in his book “Suburbia,” first published in 1973. (The Paul Paletti Gallery exhibition “Bill Owens: Suburbia” consists of photographs from this book, reprinted in 1999.)

    His empathetic photographs have the power to make you laugh in recognition or wince with dismay. Owens’ documentary style of photography records the day-to-day lives of the people sequestered — by choice — in cul-de-sacs and matching-house neighborhoods. The titles of the photographs invoke the feelings of their subjects.

    A number of his images sum up the attraction and repulsion of suburbia. A man, woman and child in their kitchen unflinchingly face the camera, and the statement underneath reads; “We’re really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food, and we have a really nice house.” Yet outside their fenced yard, seen through the large sliding door and windows, is an electrical plant.

    After developers strip and level the land to make construction easier, owners are left with little in the way of nature, something they desperately sought in the ’70s as well as today. “I bought the lawn in six-foot rolls. It’s easy to handle. I prepare the ground and my wife and son helped roll out the grass. In one day you have a front yard.” Owens shot the scene from a low angle so that you are slightly above ground level, logically making it the focus of the photograph. The grass rolls stacked on the side are reminiscent of bales of hay.

“African American Suburbanite”: by Bill Owens, now showing at the Paul Paletti Gallery.
“African American Suburbanite”: by Bill Owens, now showing at the Paul Paletti Gallery.
    The move to the suburbs is often ascribed to “white flight,” which also leaves a lack of diversity in the neighborhoods. Owens photographed an African-American woman standing in her kitchen (there are a number of kitchen scenes in the show and book), with a statement about why she moved to the area: “I enjoy the suburbs. They provide Girl Scouts, PTA, Little League, and soccer for my kids. The thing I miss most is Black cultural identity for my family. White middle-class suburbia can’t supply that. Here the biggest cultural happening has been the opening of two department stores.”

    Juxtaposing the photographs reveals the dual personality of suburbia. The exuberance of the makeshift celebration featured in, “We had a ball on the Fourth of July. The whole neighborhood came out for the parade,” illustrates that when you are far removed from local government-planned activities and amenities, you have to make your own.

    But if there’s no block party or planned cultural activity to attend, “There is nothing to do in Suburbia.” Teenage girls in cutoffs sit on the concrete, surrounded by bicycles, whiling away the day.

    Owens’ photographs of 1970s suburban life help explain why many moved to these housing developments on acres that once were farmland. They also help to explain why we’re still extending our borders today in our quest for a better life (Oldham County, anyone; how about Shelby or Spencer?).

    It just depends on your definition of “better.”

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