June 26, 2019 | 87° F

Photojournalist Bill Owens, featured artist in "It's Just a Job" exhibition, visits Zimmerli Art After Hours

This January, Zimmerli Art Museum opened an exhibition titled "It’s Just a Job: Bill Owens and Studs Terkel on Working in 1970s America." The exhibit heavily features the work of photojournalist Bill Owens, who’s famous for his photographs documenting the suburbs and working Americans in the 70s. Owens has received a Guggenheim fellowship and multiple National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) grants for his work, and last night he visited Rutgers as a part of the Art After Hours program. 

Zimmerli hosts Art After Hours events on the first Tuesday of every month, with live music, curated tours and artist talks. While Owens was the visiting artist, Noordzo, a psychedelic Afro-Cuban surf jazz band, was the visiting musical accompaniment. 

Performing as a part of the Hub City Music Festival, which takes place throughout the month of April, the band performed in a laid-back Latin style. The band is comprised of four Mason Gross alumni who started playing together when they were in school. Class of 2014 alumnus and drummer Mike Winnicki talked about the group, and their interesting reinterpretations of music of all genres.

“The bassist made (the) band, Mike Noordzy, so the band name comes from his name. I met him when he was getting his Masters, I was getting my undergrad," Winnicki said. "The (MGSA jazz) program started getting focused in the Afro-Cuban stuff, and as a result I think it made us kind of interested in the style.”

With a guitarist, bassist, drummer and percussionist, the group’s psychedelic sound comes from modifications to the tone of their instruments and the playing style. 

Some of the songs covered were classics in the field of psychedelia, with the group playing Beatles songs like "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." 

The exhibit displays Owens's portraits of people on the job. On the walls with captions showing the words of the subjects, the shots show life in lines of work that aren’t perceived to be as glamorous. Receptionists, welders and even soap opera cameramen were all included in the assorted pictures. In addition to photography, there’s a copy of Owens’s 2017 book, “Working: I Do It For The Money”, a revision of the original 1977 version, containing old and new photos. 

Donna Gustafson, curator of American Art at Zimmerli, led tours and discussions on the work throughout the evening. In January, she commented on the immense change since the time of Owens’s photos. 

“I think this exhibition creates an opportunity for people to look into the not-so-distant past, and see how quickly jobs have evolved in America, and how differently we work now. I think it’s a real lesson in how much American society has changed,” Gustafson said. 

Owens’s journey to becoming such a prominent photographer was a long one, which actually started in college. 

“I took photography in college, I got a C. I didn’t have the maturity to ‘see things.' After college I went in the Peace Corps, and when I came back from the Peace Corps I went with my wife to Europe," Owens said. "Then I went back to college, and when I went out for my first job in Suburbia (one of his classic collections) I could ‘see it,' I was 30 years old.”

The dedication to his craft and the time it took to learn all that was necessary was crucial for Owens, as it is for any artist. During the discussion portion of the evening, Owens detailed meticulously planning shooting scripts and his eye for detail. He even went as far as to hold back the release of his book for a year so he could photograph a 4th of July block party, since it caught his eye the year prior. 

Owens’s homemade films and supplementary work were also shown during his presentation, summing up the monumental body of work he’s created in the pursuit of capturing the "American Dream."

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the students, the faculty, and the community to hear directly from an artist about why they do what they do. I think that’s much more valuable than anything else that the museum can do, and I think it also gives students a chance to understand so many different points of view,” Gustafson said.  

Jordan Levy

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