In the mid 1980’s I saw the painting Bad Boy by Eric Fischl and felt the powerful combination of shock and recognition. I had never seen an image like this before – one that was so transgressive and yet thoroughly mundane. Nor had I come upon a picture tha t was such a compressed and elegant depiction of the psychological complexities involved in the act of looking. In the painting the viewer is placed in a suburban bedroom behind a adolescent boy who sneaks his hand into the purse of a women who is laying n aked on the bed in front of him with her legs wide apart as she trims her toenails. While the picture is utterly direct the narrative remains ambiguous – available to the viewers speculations and projections. What is the relationship between the boy and th e woman? Is he looking at her sexually or just keeping an eye on her so he doesn’t get caught red handed? And what about the meaning of the purse, the light, the toes, and the woman’s indifference?

While this particular image was entirely a new experience for me the feelings it evoked were familiar. When I was on the cusp of puberty one of my favorite things was to sneak into my parents bedroom and poke around their things. I’d go through their dresser drawers, rustle through their closet, peek into unmark ed boxes. I’d find countless treasures: strange jeweled objects, notes, old photos, panties and condoms. The room was suffused with amber light – the morning sun glowing through the drawn shades – the perfect light for secrets. For me the greatest experie nce that a work of art or literature can provide is to make visible something I know inside but cannot yet name or see. Simply put, it is the gift of vision. Yet for me, a great picture not only lets me know what is possible but also gives me permission to try my own hand at it, if I so choose. That’s where Fischl comes it. This painting (among other he has painted) is one of a set of signals that, for the past 20 years, allowed me to wander back to the suburbs where I grew up poke around again in my parent ’s and other’s bedrooms, in backyards, living rooms, and over fences; to make pictures that hopefully portray the complex and often dark and bewildering world of suburban life.



Beginning in 1973 we worked together on open ended allusive designs for outdoor advertising billboards, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we lived, but sometimes exhibited in other parts of the country as a part of a workshop that we would lead with graduate students, or as part of an exhibition on appropriation or public art. With the billboard we wanted to reach a larger and more varied public than would ever find its way into an art institution. As in the case of Evidence, our understanding has always been that the context of the information, in this case an advertising context, conditions the way information is perceived. We chose billboards because we wanted to exploit, subvert, and expose the strategies of adve rtising to as wide an audience as possible.

One of our first billboards was Oranges on Fire (1974 – 75) whose title was included on the billboard next to a drawing of bare, muscular arms that held, in fact, flaming oranges. Although the message was enigmatic and had no commercial meaning, we found that people wanted to relate to it as an advertisement. Many viewers thought that it was a “teaser ad”, one that stimulates curiosity by naming an upcoming product without providing any other information. In “We Make You Us” the text is presented as a fragment of a larger partly hidden text. But the text that is able to be read suggests the frightening message of what cigarette and other advertisers are willing to do to us in order to sell their products. This me ssage is juxtaposed with images of four smokers, two men, two women, printed in heavy inked black and white, each holding the cigarette as a object of pleasure, even sexual fetish. By recognizing and working within the structure of the language of advertis ing we have been able to adapt these highly sophisticated devices for communication in order to subvert the expectation of the ad and transmit our own messages.



“That [Ambiguity] is really important to me. Part of the difficulty facing photographers is that almost any subject matter has accumulated a representational history, so to find a new discursive space, a space to wander around those subject matters, is a real challenge. If I know too much, if the narrative is too well formed, I’m making pictures that are illustrative, and as a maker, that’s not interesting. As a viewer, that’s not interesting.”

“But that ambiguity and that play between the ordinary and the surreal or the extraordinary is really the edge that I’m hoping for. So when I photograph a kitchen that looks like a normal kitchen, and you realize slowly that maybe it’s fabricated, the whole kitchen is fabricated, It raises the question, well, why is this picture here? What’s interesting about it? So that, hopefully, encourages people to look, to inspect, and to stay with the picture a little bit. It doesn’t confirm that they’re looking at good pictures. It makes it problematic. It makes it challenging. Why is this there? What do we know? What can we tell from the picture? In that sense, I think finding that room to make pictures that don’t jump off the wall as, or detonate as dramatic, either in lighting or in form or in composition or in subject matter, but more ordinary, That’s the challenge.”


Fall 2001 / Issue #77

There’s a story about Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photographs of migratory farm workers in Nipomo, California. An editor at Life, upon seeing the first proofs of her pictures, sent a team of photographers out west to get the jump on publishing a photo essay of such mythic human drama. The story goes that after days of wandering around the dusty back roads and tenant farms that Lange had so poignantly captured, the photographers came up empty-handed. Desperate and defeated, they reported back to their Life editor to kill the story. They claimed that the dust bowl sharecroppers and their families, whose dignity and struggles Lange had portrayed, were nowhere to be found, that they simply didn’t exist. Lange must have fabricated the whole thing in order to photograph it.

One could arrive at similarly vexed conclusions regarding the suburbs and people Bill Owens photographed in the early ’70s. It isn’t that what his pictures revealed was hard to find—in fact, quite the opposite. Most of the situations were nonevents, as common and familiar as vacuuming the rug, tinkering in the garage, dirty dishes and folded laundry, and just as inconsequential. Feeding the kids, watching television, posing in front of the car—these were people just living their lives. In Owens’s world the insides of refrigerators and closets, a lipstick-red toilet seat and well-stocked pantry drawers also warranted portraiture. What’s astonishing is not that Bill saw these things, knew these suburban families and inspected their domiciles, but that he was attentive and crazy enough to think that this was the stuff of photographs.

Suburbia, Bill’s first and to my mind best book, was published in 1972, the same year that Aperture/MoMA published a monograph on Diane Arbus. Although Arbus’s urban sideshow and Owens’s middle-class suburbs seemed worlds apart, at the time I linked them together, along with the work of Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, as distinctly ironic—if not cynical—portraits of American life. In 1972, my own escape from the suburbs of my youth was fresh enough to count, in my mind, as an act of rebellion. From the heady vantage point of the Berkeley hills, looking at pictures of people thrilled with their tract homes and Big Wheels, their Saturday night cocaine or Tupperware parties, their liquor cabinets and two-car garages, their candle-lit dinners in the drained swimming pool—none of it could be anything but laughable and absurd.

Now, 30 years later, I look at these pictures quite differently. After living within view of three shopping centers in Marin County and for years mining the darker side of the suburbs in my own photographic work, Bill’s pictures seem to me born of delight rather than judgment. I take him at face value when reading his 1972 statement: “This work is about my friends and the world I live in.” I imagine coming upon these pictures in the files of a vast and copious municipal archive dedicated to the documentation of daily life. There’s Katherine (in rubberized dish gloves and Bob Riley, posing near their double-basin stainless-steel kitchen sink. Jane and Norm Volponi near their bed, Jane’s hairdo dwarfing Norm by a good five inches. And Bill and Janet Owens, in love, in front of their VW bug. Of course that was then . . . and the twists and turns that these lives took in the three decades that followed are the stories that we’re all waiting to hear, and, in our own ways, trying to tell.

—Larry Sultan


Larry Sultan for the NYTimes Magazine: November 12, 2000

The cast and crew of a porn film have gathered in the front yard of a ranch house, a few blocks from where I went to high school in the San Fernando Valley. Women in six-inch heels sink into the lawn; men push around lights and cameras, anxious about losing the light. They are preparing to film a scene in which four blond housewives in a convertible are pursued and overtaken by two men in an appliance-repair van. The neighbors have all come out to water their lawns and witness the scene, and in the late evening light it feels as if Fellini has come to make an updated version of “Amarcord.”

The house was rented for the two or three days that it takes to make a porn film. It is common for adult-film companies to shoot on location in tract houses in the heart of the valley — the homes of dentists and attorneys and day traders whose photographs and mementoes can be seen in the backgrounds of these films, and whose decorating tastes give the films their particular “look.”

Why has the valley become the porn capital of the world? The main reason, of course, is the proximity to the other Hollywood, the equipment and crews and ranks of aspiring or disillusioned actors. But I’ve always felt that there is something else at work, which has to do with the role the suburbs play as the blank screen upon which we project our desires. In this house, which for a couple of days is transformed from the home of the mundane to the home of the erotic, everything is changed. Lazy afternoons are interrupted not by noisy children but by the uncontrollable desires of delivery boys, baby sitters, coeds and cops. They crowd into the master bedrooms and spill out onto the kitchen floors and onto the patios and into the pools that look just like our neighbors’ pools, like our pool.