Trend Spotter

Trend Spotter

Bill Owens’s photos of the suburbs in the ’70s are classic. Later he opened one of the first microbreweries. Is he Mr. Zeitgeist?

America’s relationship to the suburbs has always been uneasy. Viewed from afar, the ’burbs always seem to boil down to an impersonal amalgam of look-alike tract homes and shopping malls connected by freeways. The quintessential take on the phenomenon comes courtesy of folksinger Malvina Reynolds, whose 1960s anthem about the “ticky-tacky” houses of Daly City (“Little Boxes”) summed up a generation’s disdain.

An exception is photographer Bill Owens. His book of photographs of 1970s suburban sprawl in and around Livermore became a cult classic when originally published more than 30 years ago.
Then working as a photographer for the Livermore Independent newspaper, Owens managed to carve out time away from his journalistic duties to document the area’s burgeoning residential growth and the people flocking to it. One day a week, almost like a fly on the wall, Owens would find just the right perch at the local Elks Club bash, Tupperware party, or newly sprouted tract home to capture a glimpse of suburban bliss. And, like it or not, there was plenty of bliss going on: suburbanites gobbling grilled chicken and corn on the cob at a cul-de-sac party complete with canopied tables; middle-aged swingers sipping champagne in a hot tub; and a couple settling in for a Sunday of perusing the New York Times in their matching swivel chairs.

Suburban swank: Owens’s work, such as this untitled print from Suburbia, is acquired by major galleries and private collectors. Courtesy of BAM, UC Berkeley (gift of Robert Shimshak and Marion Brenner).

The result of Owens’s efforts is the photo-essay book Suburbia, originally published in 1973 and reissued in 1999 by Fotofolio.

A critical but not commercial success, Suburbia revealed not just the stark reality of this strange, new land, but its inhabitants’ inherent tenderness and even sadness. Today Owens’s images may seem kitsch—like that of an avocado shag rug surrounded by matching appliances—but at the time they depicted suburbanite values, dreams, and angst, even if those were considered gauche by
Suburban swank: Owens’s work, such as this untitled print from Suburbia, is acquired by major galleries and private collectors.outsiders. Owens may have set out to merely document, but his resulting social commentary was to point out mindless American consumerism. Today he sees as much of this in the urban apartment dwellers flocking to IKEA as he did and still does with suburbanites. “You can’t set out and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to criticize the suburbs,’” says Owens. “You can’t go out with a preconceived idea about it, because you’re going to fail. As soon as you get there it’s not what you thought it was going to be.”

Suburbia vérité: Owens, who shot this untitled photo for his book Suburbia, says his pictures are not meant to be critical of his subjects, but merely to document them. Photo courtesy of BAM, UC Berkeley (Courtesy of Bill Owens, James Cohan Gallery, and Robert Shimshak).

The book’s 119 black-and-white photos (the first edition had 127 images) include a group of flag-wavers at a Fourth of July party; a family showing off its fake-wood-on-the-side Ford Country Squire station wagon pulling a motor boat; and an entertainment center complete with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, candles, and a prominently displayed copy of the seminal self-help book, I’m OK, You’re OK.
Owens created pithy captions to many of the photos. Under a shot of a man wearing sunglasses, a T-shirt, and shorts, sitting in front of his wife and their garage, boat, motorcycles, power mower, and Chevy Vega, the caption reads: “We enjoy having these things.” Another, beneath two suburbanites sitting half-crocked on stools set up at a home wet bar, reads: “My hobby is drinking. On the weekends I enjoy getting together with my friends and boozing.”

“We don’t have to conform” was photographed by Bill Owens in the early 70s. Photo courtesy of BAM, UC Berkeley (Courtesy of Bill Owens, James Cohan Gallery, and Robert Shimshak).

One of the reasons Owens was able to get so close to his subjects is that he and ex-wife Janet Owens either knew most of them firsthand or were related to them. Accused of taking advantage, Owens likes to say, “Tell me who you think I’m making fun of and I’ll give you their phone number. You can call them up and ask them.”

The most controversial photo taken for Suburbia is that of Richie Ferguson, then four years old and shown astride a Big Wheel tricycle wearing cowboy boots and holding a toy rifle by its barrel. With a crew cut and a bit of a scowl, Ferguson’s demeanor is all business—for many, a bit too much so. As if anticipating the reaction, Owens’s caption is a quote from the boy’s mother, saying, in part, “I don’t feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect on his personality.”

Fast-forward more than 30 years and the prediction appears to be true. Thanks to Owens, who’s stayed in touch with Ferguson, the now-suburban dad and Harley rider was invited to attend a March retrospective of California documentary photography (“Dreaming California,” see current exhibit information on page 12) at the Berkeley Art Museum, which includes Owens’s 1970s work. Now married with two children and working for an automatic garage door company, the mellow Ferguson says he wouldn’t allow his four-year-old son Sam to play with toy guns, but not because it would desensitize him to violence. No, Ferguson says, he’s more concerned that cops would shoot first and ask questions later. “They’re not going to take the time to see if they’re fake or real,” says Ferguson, who resides in Dublin.

Hanging out before the opening for “Dreaming California,” Owens, 67, with his shock of gray hair in a crew cut, Pendleton shirt, and bolo tie, notes that he considers himself a documentary photographer, though others may consider him an art photographer.
“ The difference between journalism and art is art is going for the truth and journalism has constraints,” says Owens between bites of biscotti. “[But] I did not set out with the pretense to go make art.” As evidence of the often difficult distance journalists are expected to keep from their subjects, Owens cites South African photojournalist Kevin Carter and his 1994 Pulitzer Prize–winning shot taken in Southern Sudan of a vulture waiting to pounce on a bloated, starving girl in fetal position. Carter was criticized for not helping the child. He later committed suicide.

Owens’s choice of medium, a large-format Pentax 6×7, is what visually differentiated his work from the photojournalism of that era, shot on stark, black-and-white 35 millimeter. Owens’s photography is backlit and nuanced. “It gives you the grayness and it softens the image,” says Owens. “I was documenting the [suburban] lifestyle and I did it with a wry sense of humor. Had I shot Suburbia on 35 millimeter it would have become much more cynical.”

Owens’s work is collected by major galleries around the world, including the James Cohan Gallery in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976.
A contemporary of Annie Leibovitz when both contributed to Rolling Stone in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Owens says he could have moved to New York and cashed in on the notoriety he had achieved after Suburbia was first published. But by then he was married with two kids and driven to provide for his family—a tough road, working as a photographer for a weekly paper. Despite his suburban locale, Owens’s career is marked by notable accomplishments. He covered the notorious Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway for Rolling Stone (then a fledgling magazine), and captured the Hells Angels’s “security force” in action. He also worked on the Altamont story for the Associated Press, and in 1976 Newsweek tapped him to contribute shots of America for a bicentennial package. He’s also shot for the New York Times and is currently working on a series about the burgeoning suburb of Vacaville for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday magazine.

That early commitment to his family, and not his budding photography career, is what binds Owens to the family-oriented suburbanites he photographs, says Gary Bogus, co-curator of “Dreaming California.” A photographer himself, who first encountered Suburbia as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early ’70s, Bogus knows how easy it is for the counterculture to dismiss suburbia. “It’s very easy for us today to look down on that lifestyle. The twist with Bill is that he didn’t look down on it,” Bogus says. “He was part of it.”

For Owens, the clear path to providing for his family was not going to be found in photography, but in suds. An avid home-brewer, Owens wrote a book on beer making called How to Build a Small Brewery—Draft Beer in Ten Days in 1979, at the same time California law changed to allow home-brewing. By 1983 the laws changed again to allow brewers to not just sell to distributors but directly to customers at a bar. The only caveat was that bars brewing their own beer had to serve two hot meals a day. Voilà—the microbrewery business was born.
Seeing an opportunity, Owens (along with 27 partners, each chipping in $2,500) opened Buffalo Bill’s in 1982 in downtown Hayward—California’s second brewpub. The city was chosen not for its untapped population of beer connoisseurs, but because the investors could get a space in the somewhat depressed area for 50 cents a square foot. When it opened, Buffalo Bill’s rent was a scant $900 a month.

In the 16 years he ran the brewery (which is still in operation today), Owens became something of a pied piper of the industry and advised others, including Ken Allen of Anderson Valley Brewing, on how to launch their own businesses.

“ Bill was very early in that game,” Allen recalls. “It was a hodgepodge little brewery, just a few steps up from being a home-brewer. We used to attend these beer festivals ourselves—two to three a month—getting to know each other. We were very non-competitive back then.”
Allen is quick to call Owens one of the pioneers of microbreweries, albeit with a qualifier. “He didn’t make the greatest beer but he was definitely way out front,” says Allen, who considers Owens a friend. Among Buffalo Bill’s better sellers were “Pumpkin Ale” (now made by Portland Brewing Company) and Alimony Ale, “The Bitterest Beer in America.”

Owens tried his luck at operating a more upscale microbrewery in 1990, opening Bison at Telegraph and Parker in South Berkeley. A state-of-the-art brewpub, Owens and his partners built it from the ground up. With cement floors and the obligatory view of the brewing machinery behind a plate glass window, the Bison felt more like a beer lab than a brewpub—after three months the business didn’t thrive. After a year Owens opted out, though Bison is still open. “It was too modern and too far away from things,” he says. “You’ve got to be funky for the students. It was too creative. The average beer drinker doesn’t give a shit.”

A robust Owens, who resides in Hayward, is enjoying a renaissance as a photographer with the reissue of Suburbia, featuring an introduction by former Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter and author David Halberstam (The Best and the Brightest). He is also now engrossed in making 30-second short stories with a digital camera, on subjects ranging from vodka-making to the goings-on at a Texas flea market. He hopes to market these movies as podcasts, but says he is not under any illusions that they’ll be a great source of fame or fortune any time soon.

Owens has also graduated from beer to harder stuff and now serves as the director of the American Distilling Institute, a trade group representing small, craft distillers of vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, bourbon, and other spirits. Eventually, Owens predicts his members will revolutionize spirits in the same way microbreweries raised the quality of domestic beer in the 1980s.

Anderson Valley’s Ken Allen sums up the key to Owens’s rebirth as a matter of timing. “He’s retro, with his butch haircut and his old-fashioned ways,” Allen observes. “Old, funky people are popular now. That’s Bill.”
The exhibit “Dreaming California” runs through May 21 at the Berkeley Art Museum. For information, visit For information on Bill Owens, visit
A regular contributor to The Monthly, Paul Kilduff is also a beer aficionado and admits to preferring mass-produced swill straight from the can, as long as it’s relatively cold.

Faces of the East Bay