It’s an election year, and all eyes are on a middle class reeling from home foreclosures and job loss, stagnant 401Ks and spiraling health care costs.
The media are all over the topic, from the cover of Time magazine — “The History of the American Dream: Is it still real?” — to Dateline’s “America Now: Lost in Suburbia,” an excruciating look at middle-class families now coping with poverty.
“The American Dream is gone,” says photographer Bill Owens, whose book, “Bill Owens: Suburbia,” chronicling suburban life 40 years ago, has secured his place in photographic history. “(You don’t) have a husband and wife and two kids and two cars. Now when you go out to the suburbs, what is it? Fifty percent of people are single. Most people I know are (financially) upside down.”
Against this backdrop, the timing could not have been better for the Johnson County Museum’s exhibit of Owens’ classic photographs.
Shot in California in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Owens’ images of upwardly mobile couples in spanking new tract homes take us back to more optimistic times.
Housing starts over the last year have averaged about 650,000 units. That figure was more than 2 million in the early ’70s when Owens published “Suburbia.”
Documenting what journalist and historian David Halberstam called “one of the great migrations of American history,” the book brought Owens a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants and was lauded a seminal photographic book of the 20th century.
It was a topic ripe for examination.
“Starting in the years immediately after World War II, millions of ordinary Americans … began to move to the suburbs,” Halberstam wrote in his introduction to the 1999 edition of “Suburbia.”
“Many,” he notes, “were the children of people who had never owned a home and who had rented cold-water flats in the years before the war. As such, the suburban experience was more often than not an optimistic one.”
The idea for the project came to Owens while he was working as a photographer for the San Francisco Bay area’s Independent newspaper in Livermore, where he first met many of the people he returned to photograph on his own time.
He worked on the project every Saturday for the period of a year, capturing the era’s console televisions and smiley faces, shag carpeting and patterned wallpaper.
It wasn’t pretty, but this was what middle-class prosperity looked like.
A text posted at the exhibit’s entrance insists that Owens “did not use his medium to mock or belittle his subjects, but … joined in their celebration of middle-class affluence and new home ownership.”
Yet viewers may conclude otherwise, confronting images of a woman watering flowers in a toilet she has turned into a backyard planter, or the family that says, “in the evenings we sit out front of the garage and watch the traffic go by.”
“I was part of it and still am,” Owens said in a recent interview. “You want a house and two cars, a washer and dryer and a refrigerator full of food.”
But he also admitted, “By the time I was 21 I had hitchhiked around the world. Having those life experiences, you can see things.”
Most of Owens’ images are accompanied by quotes from his subjects. They weren’t part of the original concept, Owens said, but came about when the book was being laid out. He was told he needed to get a signed release from his subjects and get a quote written down.
The results radiate optimism and earnestness.
“We’re really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food, and we have a really nice home,” reads the quote beneath an image of a young mother spooning baby food into her child’s mouth as her husband stands by, cocktail in hand. The windows behind them offer a view of a power station bordering their back yard.
Like the characters of “Mad Men,” the inhabitants of this all-white world seem blissfully unconcerned with the hazards of pollution, processed foods, red meat, alcohol and all the other toxins that bedevil 21st-century consumers.
Children play happily with toy guns as women clean and cook in kitchens filled with modern conveniences, pantries brimming with Cheerios and Crisco.
Men tinker in their garages and, as one fellow unabashedly explains as he raises a toast with a friend at his in-home bar: “My hobby is drinking. On the weekends I enjoy getting together with my friends and boozing.”
The exhibit is a whirl of children, pets and possessions.
“We’ve been married two months and everything we own is in this room,” says a young couple seated on a patterned couch beneath a cheap seascape wall tapestry.
Another woman tells of the compliments she gets for “Italian Syroco floral designs” on her wall.
Real art is not part of this suburban picture, nor are books, and there is surprisingly little evidence of religion, save a shot of a Nativity scene within a cloud of cotton batting atop a television.
Yet many of these images speak of great personal discipline.
One couple tells of living without furniture for a year to acquire “things we loved, not early attic or leftovers.” Another woman, sprinkler in one hand, a baby on her hip, cheerfully recounts her husband’s theory that “the water has to fall like tender little raindrops or the lawn won’t grow properly.”
Owens focuses on family in a series of revealing portraits of couples. Other images record suburban rituals — the Tupperware party, the Fourth of July parade, the Sunday afternoon barbeque — “I cook the steaks and my wife makes the salad.”
“I really wanted to show the culture,” Owens said, “the TV set, the food. My lead shot in the book is the barbeque. It’s all about those material things that we collect to make our life comfortable.”
The resulting images are funny, touching, honest — and profoundly depressing.
The life of the mind is remote from this chronicle of American existence, lending a measure of urgency to the Johnson County Museum’s motto: “Challenging you to explore your understanding of the American Dream.”
To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to email@example.com.