Bill Owens's 1972 book Suburbia met with immediate success for its keen observation of middle-class America. Owens had recorded a generational phenomenon: the rapid migration of inner city apartment dwellers to affordable, newly produced homes in city outskirts. He realized that this wasn't simply a demographic shift but a psychological one. Social critics had mocked the suburbs for their apparent conformity and spiritual emptiness. But Owens respected the liberation that many suburbanites felt, and their determination to build better lives.
Introduced to photography while a Peace Corps volunteer, Owens studied at San Francisco State College until he was hired as a staff photographer for the local newspaper in Livermore, an East Bay suburb of San Francisco. His fascination with the people and lifestyles he encountered while working for The Independent from 1968 to 1978 led to self-assigned shoots on the weekends. Although Owens never completed college, he credited several professors for their influence: John Gardner, who enabled him to realize that he was "a good storyteller," and John Collier, whose book Visual Anthropology: Photography As a Research Method, gave him a practical approach.
Suburbia, which documented the San Francisco East Bay suburbs, is the first in a series of four books Owens published dedicated to the American dream. Our Kind of People(1975)followed as an examination of political, religious, scholastic, and sports groups, while Working: I Do It for the Money(1977), which looked at people in nine-to-five day jobs. For his fourth book,Leisure(2004), Owens included color photographs. After a period of almost twenty years, during which time he abandoned photography and operated a successful brewery, Owens continues to examine American society through digital photography and movie making.