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When Walker Evans spoke of the "American Vernacular" he was attempting more than to tap into the tradition of Walt Whitman and of Stephen Foster.  He was laying the parameters of his own mission and in so doing the wider legacy of documentary, which would ultimately be the central impulse of American photography for the next half-century.  Borne of the belief that the act of witnessing imparts transcendence to the thing seen,  the insoluble conflict (and so the potency) of documenting lies in its inextricable bond to that same earthly stuff that it would suspend in photography's parallel non-reality.  The most acute practitioners knew how to make this dynamic simultaneously more ambiguous and exaggerated, which must be any worthwhile photograph's effect:  not so much to clear up the Great Truths of lived experience as to humble you before their vagueness.  

 

Bill Owens has for the last three decades placed himself in front of a cross section of Americans whose participation in the dreamtime of Manifest Destiny he views from a distinctly associative angle.  One can imagine him sharing lemonades with his subjects in their kitchens, talking about zoning hassles and the vagaries of trucked sod, and perhaps what grips you most is the unsuspected desire you slowly feel (and swore you never would) that you actually wouldn't mind joining these nice folks for an afternoon on the patio or at the pig roast (Evans the Yankee, infamously remote, mostly kept himself apart from his subjects; Owens made a name for himself recording the suburban anthropology of the California he himself lived in and still does).  In addition to the extensive photographic work that earned him his place in the craft's history, he has maintained archives of folk art that vary from garage sculpture to another kind of vernacular that is every bit as wrapped up in the language of dreams:  homemade nudie beer labels.  Ever insatiable, today he has taken up the immediacy of digital photography, with which he metabolizes a seemingly endless diet of shopping malls, July Fourth celebrations, and interstate road trips. 

 

So here is Owens' highest skill, the ability to witness without ever submitting to the temptations of sanctity or contempt, an uncommon talent in a time that is at once hysterically reactionary and unforgivingly postmodern.  His photographic choices tend toward inclusion, the contradictions of which reflect back not only upon his subjects but a process that purports to represent what it can never know.  Bill Owens' straight-ahead reflection of living in the USA compounds meaning by the simple virtue that it is itself a most democratic exercise. 

 

© Copyright Gil Blank

Bill Owens

Originally published in Issue magazine, Number 6, 2001.