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Bill Owens
“Untitled”, 1972Photography Bill Owens

Capturing gun-toting teens in 70s suburban America

Photographer Bill Owens digs out this rarely seen image and riffs on his fondness for suburban America’s past

Taken from the September 2010 issue of Dazed, as part of the Last Shot archive series

It was clear from the outset that Bill Owens would never be a lemonade-stand kind of kid. Aged 12, he presented his mother with his first neighbourhood business venture: a piece of paper that read “For 25 cents I’ll shoot your cat” on one side and “For 25 cents more, I’ll bury him” on the other. Unsurprisingly, she refused to relinquish control of the family’s .22 calibre gun.

Owens is still synony­mous with his 1972 “Suburbia monograph”, in which he exhaustively catalogued the lives of his suburban contemporaries with anthropological zeal. He recently returned to photographing contemporary Americana after an interlude of a couple of decades spent running his own breweries and distilleries. For this issue of Dazed, Owens selects a photograph of three teenage boys from his archive that, despite its ominous Columbine overtones, hints strongly at his nostalgia for a lost American way of life.

“In the 1940s, the government sent photographers out to document America. I saw one where a guy just photographed a woman with brand new cupboards and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ll do better. I’ll open up the cupboard doors and show what’s inside.’

This picture was taken in 1970. It would have been a Saturday morning. I was coming out of a neighbour’s house after having coffee, and I saw these three boys walking with their guns. They were about 15 or 16 and said, ‘You know, there’s no place to hunt any more because the suburbs have taken over all the hunting ground.’ They were pretending to go hunting because there were no jackrabbits left with the suburbs having taken over. They probably walked over to the rock quarries about two miles away to shoot the guns; that would be the extent of it.

“As a photographer, you have to be born with that ability to take an honest and even satirical look at the world. But most photographers don’t do that, they glamourise” – Bill Owens

I don’t think the picture is intimidating. It’s just some boys walking along innocently. When I was a kid, we hunted and did all the things that children today can’t do. Today, if three boys were on the street with guns, the police could be there in three minutes and they would probably take them away, too. Society is crazy. So that’s probably the last time you’ll ever see kids walking with a gun in the suburbs. 

Before I worked on “Suburbia”, I’d been in the Peace Corps and lived overseas for a couple of years. When you leave, you come back and see your society fresh. I’m still fascinated by the whole suburban American dream that I photographed in the 1970s. I go to the mall now, I go to Ikea, I go to Costco… I love it all; it’s just very fascinating to me. I think everybody wants to move to suburbia. Anybody who makes any money wants a nice house, a washer and dryer, a freezer and two cars.

As a photographer, you have to be born with that ability to take an honest and even satirical look at the world. But most photographers don’t do that, they glamourise. I don’t glamorise, I try to show it as it really is. I just did a book called Modern Moonshine Techniques (on distilling whisky and white dog), which is selling very well. I’m interested in all of that because I like to drink. I drink gin. I drink everything – beer, wine… I’m just curious how things work.”