Review: Suburbia/Working by Bill Owens


Book Reviews, Photobooks

Over the past few years, suburbia has been a frequent news source. When the price of gasoline hit the $4 mark, there was talk that the time of suburbia was finally past, as transportation costs made life there unaffordable. Gas prices have since come down, in part because of a deep recession, which was partly triggered by a collapse of the housing bubble - now suburbia is in the news since it spots so many empty houses, many of them abandoned or not even fully built. Of course, suburbia has always been based on an unsustainable life style, but it was fun (at least for those happy to live there) while it lasted.

This might be a good time to get Bill OwensSuburbia out of the book shelve (or to buy it if it’s not on it). Its photography was taken almost forty years ago, but it’s still fresh, and if you imagine you changed the decorations of people’s homes and clothes and hair styles a little bit, you’d be right there: Suburbia. Suburbia presents photographs along an actual quote of people in them - which makes the book a bit more light hearted and actually outright fun than you would ordinarily imagine it to be: “The best way to help your city government and have fun is to come out on a Saturday morning and pull weeds in a median strip.”

Maybe Working should be seen as a companion book to Suburbia. Maybe not. Either way, it is easy to connect the two in more than one way. Taken on its own, Working portrays people on their jobs - to find his subjects, Owens used the yellow pages. Many of those jobs do not exist any longer, or they don’t exist any longer in this form, or they now exist somewhere else. That makes Working so interesting compared with Suburbia. While the general style of life has changed very little - at least superficially - massive changes have been going on to support that life style. People used to have jobs that they at least did not mind and that they kept for twenty years or maybe more. Now, things are quite different (both parents have to work…), and I don’t think despite the same humour contained in some of the captions (“I got tired of selling waterbeds so I opened a beanbag store. Waterbeds were just a fad.”) you can view Working in the same way as Suburbia. Working feels a bit as if it was a different world.

Looking at the photography, what is truly amazing is how well both Suburbia and Working have stood the test of time, without feeling incredibly dated. So if you have maybe never even heard of these books (is that possible?) get your copies - you won’t regret it.