Daily Picture Show

Bill Owens: 'The Biggest Name You've Never Heard Of'

Bill Owens says it himself: He claims to be the biggest name you've never heard of. He also says that he invented pumpkin beer, which may be true. That he doesn't know why anyone would want to be a photographer, though he is one. That most photographers are dorky. And that he's changing the world. For all the hyperbole that occurred over a 30-minute phone conversation, I have to admit: The 70-something photographer has gusto.

  • Untitled (two police officers having lunch), from the "Temporary Organizations" series, circa 1975
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    Untitled (two police officers having lunch), from the "Temporary Organizations" series, circa 1975
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • Andrew doesn't like to go to the bathroom alone. From the "Suburbia" series, 1972
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    Andrew doesn't like to go to the bathroom alone. From the "Suburbia" series, 1972
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • I love to cook. Meal time is the only time the family has together. In spite of my modern kitchen, cooking dinner for six takes two hours. Then the kids inhale the food in minutes. After they are grown maybe they will remember the meals that their mother cooked. From the "Suburbia" series, circa 1972
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    I love to cook. Meal time is the only time the family has together. In spite of my modern kitchen, cooking dinner for six takes two hours. Then the kids inhale the food in minutes. After they are grown maybe they will remember the meals that their mother cooked. From the "Suburbia" series, circa 1972
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • I'm a refugee from China. I sew pockets on pants. Every day I have work, and living here is easy. In China it's hard to find a job. Someone has to recommend you. I don't speak English and I'm too old to learn so I'll never get a better job. From the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
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    I'm a refugee from China. I sew pockets on pants. Every day I have work, and living here is easy. In China it's hard to find a job. Someone has to recommend you. I don't speak English and I'm too old to learn so I'll never get a better job. From the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • Untitled (Women in house coats having coffee), from the "Women" series, circa 1974-1975
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    Untitled (Women in house coats having coffee), from the "Women" series, circa 1974-1975
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • Untitled (Earth movers), from the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
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    Untitled (Earth movers), from the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • Untitled (Women in bank), from the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
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    Untitled (Women in bank), from the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • Untitled (office scene, woman and staple action), from the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
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    Untitled (office scene, woman and staple action), from the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • I'm unemployed and I haven't worked in six years. From the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
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    I'm unemployed and I haven't worked in six years. From the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • I gross over $200,000 a year as the owner-manager of a donut store, but there's a price to pay. I come to work at 2:00 A.M. to begin the daily routine of making 250 dozen donuts. I eat dinner at 4:00 in the afternoon and am in bed by 7:30. I was a Depression baby. Now kids say there has to be something better. From the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
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    I gross over $200,000 a year as the owner-manager of a donut store, but there's a price to pay. I come to work at 2:00 A.M. to begin the daily routine of making 250 dozen donuts. I eat dinner at 4:00 in the afternoon and am in bed by 7:30. I was a Depression baby. Now kids say there has to be something better. From the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art
  • Untitled (architectural photographer Jerry Bragstad), from the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
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    Untitled (architectural photographer Jerry Bragstad), from the "Working (I Do It For The Money)" series, circa 1976-1977
    Bill Owens/Courtes of San Jose Museum of Art

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Maybe that's how he got his photos in the 1970s: If he was anything then like he is now, he would have been completely unapologetic about putting a camera in someone's face. The curators at the San Jose Museum of Art deem him a "visual anthropologist" worthy of the full exhibition that is currently on display.

Owens recalls having been "the most ordinary kid in the world" in high school. It wasn't until after time in the Peace Corps that he picked up a camera. He was a newspaper photographer for some 14 years and a Guggenheim fellow — and is renowned as having one of the most extensive documentations of middle-class suburbia. "I'm not interested in the minority," he says on the phone. "I'm interested in going to the mall."

But it's hard to make a living as a documentarian of shopping malls and parking lots and people at work. Owens eventually switched gears and founded a brewery in the '80s; he also founded brewing magazines, wrote books and continues to teach. He has work at permanent collections at New York's Museum of Modern Art and D.C.'s National Museum of American Art. And the San Jose Museum of Art recently acquired 40 images, which prompted the current exhibition, on display through February.

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