Return to Articles


by Jody Zellen

(UCR/California Museum of Photography, Riverside) Suburbia is a collection of black and white photographs taken by Bill Owens around Livermore, California's Amador Valley in 1972. These photographs are being presented in conjunction with Gerry Tsuruda's recent photographs entitled Silent Harvest: The Disappearance of the Family Farm, in which he documents the dwindling tradition of a "family farm" in California's central valley. Exhibited together these two distinct bodies of work offer interesting comparisons between two photographer's relationship to both the place and time in which they live.

Owens' Suburbia exposes the absurd notion of the American dream and the ability to achieve it by living in the suburbs. The images and their accompanying text are straightforward black and white photographs of people and places. Owens' focus was on what was different in the suburbs--what they offered in 1972 that the city did not provide. The images when seen today are nostalgic documents that suggest a different type of life-style than that offered in today's suburban communities. In 1972 the idea of the suburb was new. They represented a place for the family to be safe, and a new kind of community living as an alternative to the city.

Owens did not photograph his subjects as a voyeur but rather as a member of the community. He got to know the people he photographed, and their trust in him and what he was doing is evident in the images he created. Many of the photographs are captioned, allowing the subjects' voices to be heard in their own words.

My dad thinks it’s a good idea
to take all the leaves off the tree
and rake up the yard.
I think he’s crazy.

Bill Owens, “Ritchie” from the series
“Suburbia,” photograph, 1972.

Because we live in the suburbs we don't eat too much Chinese food. It's not available in the supermarkets so on Saturday we eat hot dogs.

Bill Owens, from the series
“Suburbia,” photograph, 1972.

Among the better known images from Suburbia is Richie. This photograph depicts a young boy named Richie who would ride around the neighborhood on his plastic "Big Wheel" carrying a toy rifle. The caption states: "I don't feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect on his personality. (He already wants to be a policeman). His childhood gun-playing won't make him into a cop-shooter. By playing with guns he learns to socialize with other children. I find the neighbors who are offended by Richie's gun, either the father hunts or their kids are the first to take Richie's gun and go off and play with it." In another image a boy removes all the leaves on a small tree in the front yard while another boy rakes the pile. The caption states: "My dad thinks it's a good idea to take all the leaves off the tree and rake up the yard. I think he's crazy."

Owens pays attention to details in his photographs. Although the people are his subjects, their surroundings are also of great importance. The kind of BBQ or type of car locates these images in a specific moment, and we view them today based on the information they provide about that place and time. In Damned Dishes a woman in hair curlers stands in the middle of her kitchen holding a small boy. The sink is full of dirty dishes. The kitchen is a mess. The caption reads: "How can I worry about the damned dishes when there are children dying in Vietnam."

While Suburbia presents images seemingly devoid of politics, of people and places insulated from the goings on--Watergate, Vietnam, hippies--upon close examination of the images and their captions it becomes evident that the people in Owens' photographs are not so naive nor isolated. They have an awareness of what is taking place around them.

Gerry Tsuruda, “Alex Giusti, Robbins,
California 1999,” from the series
“Silent Harvest,” photograph, 1999.

Gerry Tsuruda, "The Ghosts of Locke,
Locke, California 1999," from the series
"Silvent Harvest," photograph, 1999.
Looking back at life in the suburbs in the 1970's presents one kind of life and life style. Tsuruda's photographs of the current struggle of farmers living in the central valley present a very different story. He was interested in documenting the tradition of the family farm and the hardships and trials these farmers must endure to continue doing what the families have always done. According to Tsuruda "Silent Harvest is an ongoing study of what is happening to family farms in California's bread basket." During the three years he photographed in the Central Valley he states, "I have come to recognize a common element shared by all. It is a sense of tradition, and a sadness for its impending loss."

Tsuruda's photographs depict farmers, farms and farm equipment. They are expansive views of the landscape and a way of life, at once meditative and informational. Farmers are depicted in their barns with their animals or by their equipment such as in Alex Giusti, Robbins, California 1999. In this photograph Alex is dwarfed by his tractor. Is the machine overtaking man? In the 30 photographs that comprise Silent Harvest, Tsuruda depicts what he terms "a farming tradition," a tradition he feels could soon be obsolete.

Both Tsuruda and Owens' photographs document a place and a time that is undergoing or has undergone change. Seeing these bodies of work together allows us to compare and contrast two vastly different points of view and think about our own relationship to the social and natural landscape.