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

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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.

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."

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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.