Recent Acquisitions: 31 Bill Owens Photographs Gifted to Mills
After this post, I'm retiring Recent Acquisitions. I began writing the column in January of 2012, shortly after I moved to San Francisco, and it enabled me to do what I love most: hang out in archives, museums, historical societies. With the help of some of my favorite curators and archivists, I celebrated the column's one year anniversary at the Commonwealth Club. Thank you to all of the readers and arts workers who supported Recent Acquisitions! I'll continue to write my other column, Read Local, and you can also find me here and here.
The Mills College Art Museum houses an impressive collection inside the Spanish Colonial Revival building designed by Walter Ratcliff Jr., and their most recent acquisition is no exception. Dr. Stephanie Hanor was kind enough to speak with me about the 31 photographs by Bill Owens. The Bay Area photographer -- who has the best illustrated biography I have ever seen on an artist's website -- is best known for capturing suburban domestic scenes around the East Bay.
In the 1970s, most photographers sought out urbane subjects on gritty city streets, or favored pastoral scenes of farmers working the land, but Owens was fixated on those in between, the kind of families who dwelled in tract housing.
Local collectors Robert Shimshak and Marion Brenner donated 31 photographs by Bill Owens in December. Did you know about the donation in advance, and did it come with any stipulations, like the collection can never be sold or it must be displayed every so often?
I had been speaking with Bob and Marion about the possibility of a donation of Bill Owens work for awhile. They suggested a grouping of photographs that would be relevant to Mills students, specifically a group of works that depicted the lives of girls and women, which was an important subset of Owens' work. While the donation did not come with any restrictions as to how often the work needs to be displayed or that it can't be sold, the intent was that it was a significant group of images that could work well together as an exhibition and also be integrated into our collection. We are planning to show the entire group as an exhibition in late 2014.
Are all the photographs of middle class girls and women in Northern California? Is there a specific time period he's captured?
Yes, all of the photographs depict middle class girls and women in suburban Northern California in towns like Livermore and Pleasanton. They are all from the early 1970s, which is an interesting time in the history of feminism. The photographs include a wide range of ages of women, from young girls to teenagers, from young mothers to grandmothers.
What do the photographs tell us about how they spent their days?
The photographs depict a range of common everyday activities, from school events like pep rallies, to church socials, to backyard barbeques. What I find interesting is that Owens captures not only activities that one might stereotypically expect for suburban females: baton-twirling practice or beauty queen pageant participants; but he also shows women in the work place and as community volunteers, as well as girls in classroom environments. The images also depict the importance of women's social clubs during this time.
In some of the photographs, I'm struck by a particular expression or gesture. There are a lot of joyous moments in which the women and girls appear unaware of the camera, just reveling in each other's company and the activity. Are they all of in this vein?
Yes, the images are overwhelmingly positive. Rather than a depiction of despair or frustration with suburban life, these images capture a genuine pleasure in life and the company of others. I think that is actually part of the charm of Owens' images and helps to assuage some of the negative assumptions that we might have looking back at that period.
Do you have a favorite or two among the 31 photographs?
One of my favorites is of the three girls practicing with batons. I like the combination of their concentration and the boredom of the girl watching them mixed with the awkwardness inherent to their ages. It's a sweet but poignant moment that is very relatable.
How does Owen's work fit into the collection as a whole?
The Mills College Art Museum has a wonderful photography collection and also makes a priority of collecting California artists. So this group of photographs fills a gap in our collection in a wonderful way.
What do you hope Mills students and visitors to the museum take away from the photos?
The Bay Area is known for such a rich history surrounding the late 1960s and 1970s --important political and social activism, as well as counterculture lifestyles. It's interesting to see in these photographs the suburban lives that were being led at the same time. They give viewers access to an often overlooked cultural segment of the Bay Area during that period.