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Walnut Creek Magazine

Bill Owen's Iconic Photography Exhibit, Suburbia, On Display at UC Berkeley

By Deborah Burstyn
Photo credit: "Tupperware Party"

Backyard barbecues, block parties, yard work. The shag carpeting and mile-high hairdos may be gone, but much about the East Bay suburbs photographed by Bill Owens for his iconic Suburbia collection remains the same.

A selection of Owen’s images are on display at a free exhibit in UC Berkeley’s North Gate Hall. While not a traditional gallery, the photos and their intriguing captions are on view along the corridors of the historic 1906 building as part of an ongoing series on documentary photography sponsored by the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The exhibit celebrates a new edition of Owens’s acclaimed book Suburbia, first published in 1972.

During the late 1960s, Owens was working as a full-time photographer for a newspaper called The Livermore Independent. His assignments took him deep into the heart of the East Bay’s flourishing new suburban communities including Walnut Creek, Danville, Pleasanton, Dublin as well as Livermore. Fresh from two years overseas with the Peace Corps and a visual anthropology studies major at San Francisco State, Owens saw the rituals and symbols of an emerging suburban culture as much as art and social science as photojournalism.

While other photographers of the era, like Diane Arbus, focused their lenses on urban life, Owens photographed a vital shift he saw in how America lived taking place in the East Bay suburbs. And while critics at the time were mocking the suburbs for their conformity, Owens saw the happiness and freedom many suburbanites felt in their flight from the cities to new affordable family homes. “Everyone was moving to the suburbs; a vet could buy a house with $2,000 down. A two-car garage, a swimming pool, and a Kenmore washer and dryer…all of the things that come with the good life,” states Owens in commentary.

An entrepreneur and Hayward resident, he went on to found Buffalo Bill’s, America’s first brewpub, and the American Distilled Spirits Institute, an organization he still helps run at age 80. Owen’s is presently working on a new book about the ill-fated 1969 Rolling Stones Concert at Altamont. He’s a National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient. Through January 7, Monday-Friday,

8am – 6pm.  North Gate Hall is located near Hearst and Euclid Avenues on the UC Berkeley campus.

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