At 73, Bill Owens has an epic brag book. The California man founded American Brewer magazine, claims the title "founder of the beer pub movement," and is a distilling whiz. His photography skills, he told The Pitch, brought fan mail from Ansel Adams, provoked a brawl between two prisoners, enticed international thieves, and decorated Elton John's home — well, one of his homes — with $30,000 worth of prints. (The celeb rejected Owens' wish to photograph his hands. "All those years playing the piano, he has the most incredible hands," Owens says.) Then there are his sweet random accomplishments, like hitchhiking around the world. His photo exhibit Suburbia, at the Johnson County Museum (6305 Lackman Road, Shawnee, 913-715-2550), is a black-and-white collection depicting life in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He spoke to The Pitch by phone.
The Pitch: I'm particularly drawn to the photo of the woman wearing cat-eye glasses and watering her toilet-seat flower garden. They remind me of old pictures of my grandma.
Owens: Suburbia is all about the familiar. People look at the photographs and say, "Hey, that's my Uncle George!" I love to photograph the mundane. Send me somewhere where nothing is happening, and I'll come back with a good shot. I didn't go exotic. There are no funny camera angles. I didn't manipulate anything or pose anyone. I just tried to be as intellectually honest as I could to make these images.
Has that become a bit of a lost art?
Today, Photoshop makes everyone thinner and gives them bigger busts. It's all phony. And don't get me going on reality TV. It makes me want to throw up.
What were your intentions with Suburbia?
I am fascinated with the American Dream. You look at these photos and you wonder: Is the American Dream two cars, a house, a swimming pool, friends and good food? If I were young today and had the money, I would be with my camera at the center of the universe: Ikea. And I'd be in Costco and Home Depot. There is a consumerism renaissance going on in America. People genuinely want to make good decisions, but is that person a good citizen? Or is that person wasteful?
What are you working on now?
I'm teaching distilling. I photographed classic cars, and I'd like to produce that book. I'd love to photograph Kansas City. The city is as American as apple pie. It's clean. It's modern. Just shoot life. Where are people going to breakfast? What are they eating?
The museum is open 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Suburbia runs through September 1. See jocomuseum.org for more information.