Bill Owens – The Los Angeles Documentary Project

Bill Owens, which made his reputation shooting in suburbias, took part from July of 1979 to June of 1980 to one of biggest survey ever made about Los Angeles.

Bill Owens - Pool, from the Los Angeles Documentary Project, Ektachrome print on paper image, 1980
Bill Owens – Pool, from the Los Angeles Documentary Project, Ektachrome print on paper image, 1980

The Los Angeles Documentary Project was an ambitious one. Organised by the federal agency for culture (the National Endowment for the Arts – the NEA), it was announced as “a visual examination of the sociological and topographical diversity of one of the most dynamic and unusual cities in the world”. The survey was made to study the social impact of growth and change on the city and also its significance in postmodernist urban theory.
It included 8 photographers familiar with L.A and known for works already accomplished in California : Bill Owen, Gusmano Cesaretti, Joe Deal, Robbert Flick, Douglas Hill, John Humble, Susan Ressler, and Max Yavno.

While other photographers chose to document L.A with black&white films, Owens took pictures in color. He also obviously chose to focus on clichés: as he did for his “Suburbia” portfolios from 1972, his L.A photos stress on common stereotypes, which can include, for example, a swimming pool, pretty ladies snorting drugs, a sushi bar, huge free ways or else artists in their loft. All those scenes, which look like having been set up, call attention to the artificiality of the city. Critics pointed out that those pictures look eventually closer to magazines portfolios than to survey material, having a level of artifice that doesn’t match with the mission the photographers were given. But they nevertheless give an account of the visual diversity that the city presented and balance the approaches of the 7 others photographers. Showing all the city facets, the survey included different approaches and styles; thus Owens’ vision and appropriation of media images completes the tableau with an aspect that definitely belongs to L.A’s identity: artificiality.
The complete survey was presented in 1981 with the exhibition “Year 200: New Views of Los Angeles,” first shown at Mount St. Mary’s College and then at Grossmont College.

Here some the grand-format camera photographs ownd by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery, of Owen’s portfolio:


Credits: Bill Owens / Smithsonian American Art Museum, all rights reserved.

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