Bill Owens is perhaps most well known for his iconic Suburbia project documenting the daily life of his friends and neighbors in a northern California suburb in 1972. Treating middle class experience as an anthropological phenomenon, Owens poignant and often funny images described the American suburb at a kind of midpoint between the wholesome optimism of Levittown and the ancillary effects of Vietnam and the looming recession.
Switching to color and going "out on the road," Owens’ photographs included in American Icons contain the same insight, wit, and humor of the earlier black and white work while expanding the horizons of the suburbs to national parks, sites of culture and commerce, and a "new suburbia" which carries forward some of the mixed optimism of its predecessor.
Crossing the country and focusing on the iconographic rather than the sociological, Owens’ more recent pictures engage America’s outsized ambitions with a lightness and curiosity that reveals the ever-present shadow of folly in any grand enterprise. Maintaining a keen eye for the awkward moment or circumstance that reveals social contradictions or deflates perennial myths, Owens’ thoughtful but direct images portray a culture deeply invested in its own mythology, forgiving its excesses as crude but necessary mistakes in a project that remains perpetually unfulfilled.
Exhibited concurrently with carriage trade’s fifth version of Social Photography, viewers are invited to draw parallels between the legacy of an iconic image-maker from the history of photography and the rapidly expanding field of cell phone images. With the everyday subjects of many cell phone pictures reminiscent of the genre of street photography, and "traditional" photographers like Bill Owens now on Instagram, the pairing of these shows links past to present, perhaps revealing a comprehensible aesthetic within the constant flow of social media images that now surround us.
Image: Bill Owens, Four Corners, Four Corners, AZ, 2003, inkjet print