Hayward, California, is a tolerant kind of place. “Black, White, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Polynesian, we got ‘em all,” says Bill Owens, photographer and chronicler of this town. He points out his bank, his old brewpub, and his former house. Hayward still has a quaint village feel – tidy sidewalks, burger joints closed on Sunday and Monday, old neon signs, a cocktail lounge named Curly’s Place. “I don’t even see it anymore, I drive this street two or three times a day,” Bill comments.
While Bill Owens may not “see” this particular strip of Hayward anymore, he has trained his camera on similar towns, specifically in Northern California, for more than 35 years. His most recent release, Leisure, is the fourth and final volume in the landmark Suburbia series. As in his other works, Leisure is part anthropological survey, part popular culture time capsule. Here, Owens captures Americans at their finest – having a good time. Even better, these people are having a good time in the early 1970s, big hair and all.
The cover image sets the stage for this golden era of family recreation. In the ’70s, being “outdoorsy” shifted drastically from lodging in rustic tents to cruising into a national park in the equivalent of a rock star’s tour bus. The vitality and devotion to “living the good-life” is captured perfectly here. We see the cook, proudly presenting his grilled hamburger, his ribald T-shirt depicting the popular Raggedy Andy and Ann in a cartoon sex act. The stock-issue picnic table is set with real china, tablecloth and two formal candelabras; not one, but four Coleman cook stoves are at the ready; and anchoring the scene, the requisite RV trailer waving the American flag.
Paging through the book, I detect an edge of competitiveness that lies just below the surface of these so-called leisure activities. Americans are shown busily immersed in foot races, soccer camps, Pine Wood derbies, wrestling matches, weight lifting, volleyball games, car and dog shows and even classes on how to pack the perfect suitcase. Emphasising the divide from benign amusement to bloodsport are captions like: “All they want are the trophies.” If Bill feels that America’s leisure activities seem a bit cut-throat, more like competitive races, he doesn’t articulate that judgment, saying simply: “Well, you want to be good at what you do.”
No doubt, Americans want to excel – especially in their leisure time. This is where dreams of greatness are born. In a rather poetic shot of shirtless teen boys watching a distant baseball game, fingers laced through a chain link fence, you sense the youthful anticipation. With their bicycles tossed carelessly aside, you can feel the thick summer air, smell the popcorn and, oh yes, the potential.
Bill loves America and he loves his subjects.“I make images of my life and what interests me and my interests are broad and catholic,” he says. In the non-religious sense, that is. “That’s ‘catholic’ with a small ‘c’,” he advises and reaches for the dictionary: “Catholic, as in ‘universal, liberal, tolerant, interested or sympathetic to a wide range of things’.
This definition certainly sums up the work in Leisure, and Owens’ overall approach as a documentary photographer. Reading critiques and reviews of Owens’ work reveals a fascination with describing the psychological or subconscious narrative of a sexually repressed and anxious society. The fact that the images have “a particular kind of strangeness”, as Gregory Crewdson offers in the introduction, is indeed an analysis one cannot deny. However, what strikes me most after meeting him in person, is that Owens is documenting his own surroundings in a morally exposed and honest way.
Owens doesn’t pander, in fact he is proud of how he “blends in”. I point to the photo made at Rosie O’Grady’s Goodtime Emporium. It features a petite and very fit young woman in mid-dance spin. Heavily mustachioed men wearing open-collar polyester shirts are gratefully observing her. It’s classic Saturday Night Seventies. He enthusiastically replies: “Yeah! Look at that jumpsuit – and that was in the middle of the day too!”
In Leisure, whether we are viewing someone reading in the bathtub or visiting a strip club, Owens reveals an open society in which people can individuate based on their downtime. One photo caption sums it up: “ I do what I want to do, and I don’t care what the neighbors do.”
This tolerance for having a good time on your own terms is one that Owens understands and shares. As we are about to wrap up our morning visit, Bill proffers an invitation: “Hey, you wanna go shopping with me at the 99 Cent Store?” Lucky for us, he blends in.