I enjoy looking at photographs of people. They capture something about the essential “us-ness” that we miss amid the confusion of living. The social continuity we fail to conceptualize in our memories. These photographs offer a mirror wherein the reflected image stares back at us questioning our social dialog. They make a declaration about who we are now and how we are, or are not, different from our past selves and those who came before us. They suggest to us who we may become and imply that the “who” is represented in the viewed image. When the questions are valid and the declarations are honest, the contributions these images offer are timeless.
Here, I want to discuss two photographs from, and the meaning of, the collection Suburbia by Bill Owens. Conceptually, the project offers the viewer the chance to see life in suburban America as a collection of moments in a particular time, the 1970s. However, as a complete work Suburbia asks us to consider these images both as static in time and descriptive of the same ideals, goals, dreams, and secrets in suburbanites today.
Classically, the difficulty is always how to ensure that photographic moments remain relevant as time goes by. In Suburbia Owens achieves this by demanding the viewer’s involvement. He forces that viewer to reflect upon the oneness he or she experiences with the image. Suburbia is at once a title, a place, a moment, and a theme. It is an opportunity to interact with the subjects in the pictures, the offer of conversation across time with an implied person to person contact. Because of the dialog, these subjects are not gone, they a merely across the room, the patio, the driveway, or the street.
To emphasize the active visitor approach as opposed to the passive observer, each image is supported by a title that uses a quote taken directly from one or more of its subjects. Thus those subjects without realization cross the fourth wall speaking directly to the anonymous viewer whenever that viewer shows up.
In this image we are presented with an oriental family sitting together around the dinner table. The image evokes a welcoming feeling with a pleasant scene of a family together a dinnertime. What is perhaps of the greatest significance is the way the subjects are turned to greet the camera. It is as if the viewer is an unexpected but welcome guest who has just entered the room.
The chosen title for this image is interesting because it immediately begs us to ask why this family is eating the meal before them. By offering us the other side to the conversation before we have time to consider the image we are forced to look deeper into the meaning of this photographic record. Yet, the significance of the title may be easily lost in the way it is presented. If it is taken in the context of the underlying theme of Suburbia this title evolves into a more engaging format, such as:
“That’s a curious meal for a Saturday. Why hot dogs?”
“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.”
To fully understand the significance of this as well as other images in Suburbia we must see it through the context in which it is presented. Consider it without the title and we likely see a family snap shot taken by someone just entering the room perhaps long unseen friends or close family and in many ways, the picture has merit for just that purpose. It is a generous scene where the subjects are surprised and happy to greet us, the unexpected guests.
Adding the title transforms the meaning. Suddenly it becomes a documentary statement. One might actually consider it an invasion of privacy but in reality what we receive is a moment in this family’s life. An explanation of why they have chosen this meal in this suburb. A declaration that, given the circumstance, this is what they choose to eat on all Saturdays. More importantly though is an understanding we can endorse. For some groups it is as valid in suburbia today as it was then.
In terms of invasion, this image gives us a deeper sense of intrusion. The expression on the young woman’s face suggests that she is somewhat unhappy about our visit into her bedroom but she is not embarrassed. Save her hair, she makes only a slight attempt to cover herself so we know she does no see our visit as an entirely unwelcome intrusion. She has something to say but it is not clear that she is comfortable saying it to us.
The young man’s expression is more involved. While he also appears to display resentment to our presence his expression suggests that he is the one responsible for the title. There is a challenge in his expression and an arrogance that perhaps suggests he expects his partner to submit to our voyeuristic presence. From the viewer’s perspective there is a conflict in this image. Our intrusion into the couple’s intimacy forces them to defend their attitudes with words the girl’s body language does not support. This picture tells us that the couple, or at least the girl, may not be as liberated as they would have us believe. This is a valid interpretation because suburbia removes us from the anonymity of city life. What we are seen to do in our suburban homes quickly becomes the topic of conversation at the holiday block party. There is risk in sharing honesty.
The concept behind Suburbia is timeless. There will probably always be family meals, sexually liberated couples, and block-parties. However, in adding the subjects’ comments, Owens moves the traditionally static aspect of photography toward the documentary film medium. The involvement of the subject in each image cleverly elevates it above the vignette. There is no shading of the background in terms of time, place or meaning. I believe this was Owens’s attempt to maintain relevance into the future and he was successful even as he purposely staged these and other images in the collection. These impressions and comments from the people living in the suburbs tell us far more about what they are doing and thinking than would ever be possible by any means other than being there to experience the moment or to record it on film or video. They are also a suggestion that suburbanites think and feel the same way today.
Suburbia is gestalt because it does not lose its message from division. It presents itself unapologetically in images such as these with no attempt to reach beyond the photo-essay, or photojournalistic work. In producing it as a photo novel Suburbia may invalidate it own cohesion. After a time, it loses its whole as the viewer draws comparisons between the parts; the “then” and “now”. Although the underlying theme “life in the suburbs” remains the same, attitudes do change over time. Eventually, viewers stop relating to the material and refuse to accept it as a mirror of current behavior. The work becomes too long and detached to be seen as a viable interpretation of the way we live in the suburbs today.
Owens, Bill. Suburbia. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1973. Print.