The Vintage Life of Bill Owens
by Carol Henry
After a visit by Rich Brimer and myself to the home of photographer Bill Owens in preparation for his March 2019 exhibit The American Dream, at Carmel Visual Arts.
Somewhere between downpours and rainbows, we turned on to Bill Owens’ street. His directions over the phone were implicit. “You will see a table on the side of the street next to a telephone pole. Turn in right there and go down the long driveway to my house.” Since his iconic photographs of the 1950s and 60s tract homes and their residents are iconic, I guess I was expecting Bill Owens to inhabit one of his photographs. But as we turned down his East Bay Area ocean view street, it looked newish, without the character that occupies an Owens image. Then, there by the right side of the road—in shin deep uncut grass—harboring a living room end table, next to a telephone pole was the drive. Just a signpost—you were about to enter Bill Owens country, and venture on at your own risk.
A house, no a cabin actually, from the early 1900s, was placed at the end of the drive and houses the mighty Bill Owens. It’s one where you might visit Edward Weston or some other photographer from over 100 years ago. A porch runs across the entire front and there are steep steps dividing it in the middle. On the left side sits an array of rusty pedal cars, Tonka trucks and more vintage small forms of transportation. If you were knee high it would look exactly like a used car lot. I smile and climb the steps and knock at the rustic door, and the beaming Owens opens it immediately and welcomes us inside his home. It’s very small, but warm and lined with whimsical collections. In the center of the floor is one very vintage turquoise upholstered chair and ottoman, the only piece of furniture, no others for sitting and making small talk. My eye is darting around and I want to ask Owens about all of the toys. Some are what I would call adult novelties, like the Kama Sutra piece attached to the wall just inside the door. But this is Bill Owens’ domain and he takes over the conversation and rushes us into the small kitchen, complete with 1950’s chrome dining table, where he introduces us to the objects we would be taking with us. A box of loose prints for his exhibit, priceless. A box of memorabilia, priceless. And a few notebooks of his experiences, priceless. Then he goes to the back door in the hallway, opens the door and asks me to come look at his outside canopied area, a spot where he does most of his summertime living. There is a picnic table and lots of chairs, a flat-screen TV wrapped tightly in a tarp to protect it against the weather. But I couldn’t help but think of how much it looked like a Christo amidst all of the other kitsch objects. My eye was stuck on the life-size human anatomy torso. When I comment about it, Bill says, “Those are hard to get now, you know.”
Ephemera by definition is something that isn’t supposed to last. Many people challenge that definition and save ephemera for a lifetime. Owens not only saves things in his collections that others might not treasure, but he photographs segments of society that others might not find important enough to capture forever as fine art. After a lifetime of staying with the Bill Owens style, he has created an archive of Americana.
Bill Owens is over 80 and an icon of American photography. But he says, he could never do anything well and that’s why he became a photographer. Join me as I delve into a look through the visionary lens of Bill Owens.
Bill Owens first picked up a camera in college, when he took a photography class and received a “C” for his efforts. And as he puts it, “That was the end of that.” He says he flunked out of college after 3 days, after signing up for French language school, in France. But since he was in France, he decided to travel on hitchhiking around the world. After returning to the US and after President Kennedy’s assassination he joined the Peace Corp. Serving in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, he watched as a photographer came by to photograph the Corp teachers and decided once again he wanted to be a photographer.
Bill Owens (BO) “I bought a book called, ‘The Family of Man’ and studied those photographs. I then bought a used Leica for $10. It had a hole in the lens but I fixed it with shoe polish, and I started photographing the village. That was the first (photo) essay I ever did, probably around 1965.”
He returned to San Francisco and went back to school at San Francisco State, studying visual anthropology with Dr. John Collier, a FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographer.
BO “So I really cut my teeth on the documentary style. I studied Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee and all of those photographers were my gurus. Then I got my first job at the Livermore Independent (newspaper) in 1968.”
In December of 1969, there was the Altamont Concert that featured the Rolling Stones, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Bill Owens was one of the few photographers there. He happened to be in a position to witness the Hell’s Angels beating people up with cue sticks and documented the event. During those tumultuous times—while attending an anti-war protest—Owens’ himself was beaten up. Each time he went home and recounted his experiences at the typewriter. All these years later he saved that account, now a browned piece of typing paper. It will be on display in the upcoming Carmel Visual Arts exhibition along with a photograph of Owens himself getting beat up, all part of his memorabilia. The signed Altamont to America book will be available at the CVA exhibition and will be for sale.
BO “That Altamont book is going to be a huge success because I’ve got 35 photographs from the event that no other photographer in the world has.”
The exhibition at Carmel Visual Arts is titled, Bill Owens | The American Dream, with over 20 silver gelatin photographs, masterfully composed. They pull you right into living moments that have long past us by. But also the sensory response to the photographs is truly compelling. Owens doesn’t mock anyone’s situation but does bathe us in not only sensuality but also the vulnerability of his subjects. People seem to trust Bill Owens and his camera.
BO “I met the enemy and he is us! I can photograph in this town because I live here and I know people. I knew that National Geographic could not rip me off because of that. I’ve known photographers that go around suburbia and take 1000s of photographs of the exteriors. They never went inside the house and knew the people. They never photographed the kitchen, the bedroom, the backyard, the swimming pool, the kid’s birthday parties. I really cut my teeth on that documentary tradition and wanted to show life as it was without doing a value judgment, saying how ticky-tacky life really is. I tell everyone when I do my lectures, don’t go to Alaska and photograph the Indians. Leave them alone. Everything in the world has already been documented. I promise you, there are two million pictures of Machu Picchu. Everything to be done is right in front of you.”
You might have enjoyed director Tim Burton’s 1950’s visual aesthetic in the movie, Edward Scissorhands. But you might not have known that was a tribute to Bill Owens’ imagery. The visual organization, the interiors, and hairstyles all speak to a take from the Bill Owens playbook.
BO “True. But I don’t hang with stars. But the Jimmy Carter White House did turn me down when I tried to go photograph there via Newsweek. I’m very proud of that letter. I’m not going to be famous because I photograph famous people. I’ve never had an agent to go hustle that world. I had a wife and two kids and couldn’t travel. Your wife would get really pissed off if you were gone for a week then. I wasn’t into fame and money, what I was interested in was, What is The American Dream? What does the front room look like? Does it have a shag rug?”
Owens gave us a box of personal memorabilia to display at the CVA exhibition, Bill Owens | The American Dream. The objects range from a cap gun to a rubber duck. He is reflecting on his own collections, after distilling down— to a few boxes— a life where he says both his parents loved him. In the 90’s, I myself had a friend whose single brother died of AIDS. She told me when you die you will have one cardboard box filled with stuff. I wondered how these objects hold meaning for Owens, for all of us. Are the memories more real when you have owned the objects? I think of those who lost everything recently amid wildfires and floods.
BO “These are objects from my childhood that my mother gave me when she died. When I started my memoirs, I started pulling the stuff together. That photo album that your mother gives you makes you remember certain things and you write that story down. One time I shot my father with a BB gun and he bent the barrel. I don’t have it, but I am 50,000 words into my memoir and the fact that some of my drawings have lasted over 50 years is pretty amazing.”
Fifteen years ago Bill swerved into brewing and distilling spirits. He is the founder of the American Distilling Institute, which publishes magazines and books. Like the very successful, Distiller, a luscious 200+ page magazine filled with full-color ads and editorial that comes out tri-annually. American Distilling Institute hosts an annual Craft Spirits Expo—this year it will be in Denver.
BO “We will have over 2000 people attend this year. Sometimes people at the conference will walk up and ask, ‘Are you Bill Owens the photographer?’ I reply,‘You must have gone to art school.’ I send out distilling newsletters by email to over 12,000 people. I never went to business school and I’ve had seven businesses. It just shows you a person with a little curiosity and a sense of humor can go quite far.”
“You would never have predicted anything from me when I was 18, 19 or 21. I was an ordinary fun-loving kid who liked girls and drinking beer. Just a C student, but the most important thing to me is education, going to college and meeting other people, that will change your life. To hide out in college I would go to the photo book section. Did I ever dream I was going to be a photographer? No, I just liked looking at those photo books. My bucket list is to go to go to the caves where Man lived 17,000 years ago. I like anthropology and archeology. There’s a lot to see and do. But I can make an interesting photo between here and Safeway. I promise you I can. I like looking at ordinary things and seeing it. Most people don’t see the ordinary.”
We invite you to Meet Bill Owens and purchase his iconic books at the opening night of his photography exhibit The American Dream at Carmel Visual Arts on Saturday, March 2nd from 7-9pm. A limited supply of these specially-priced books will be available during the exhibit, so come there early to get yours!