He viewed the mayhem of the 1969 Altamont concert from high up on a light tower and left before the Stones hit the stage, but by then Bill Owens had already captured the vibe of the event in some iconic photographs. After that, he turned his humane and sardonic lens on suburbia, capturing many more familiar images. Gregory Daurer talked with Owens, now 80, on the eve of the publication of his new book Altamont 69.
Bill Owens wants me to know that he isn’t a “starfucker.” In the days when he was primarily a news and documentary photographer (the late ’60 through the early ’80s), he had zero interest in photographing famous rock & rollers. It wasn’t his scene – at all – he says. Behaving more like a sociologist with a camera, he’s always preferred photographing “ordinary people.”
But in 1969, Owens was asked by the Associated Press to photograph the free concert at the nearby Altamont Speedway in Northern California. The concert, featuring the Rolling Stones as headliners, was marked by tragedy: a young African-American man with a gun was stabbed to death that day by one of the Hells Angels, who was later acquitted after pleading self-defense.
But here’s the anticlimax of Owens’ story: he didn’t take any photos of that event – or of the Rolling Stones. He’d shot all his film early in the day, didn’t like the vibes or the milieu, so he left by early afternoon. Still, Owens did bring back an iconic image of the Hells Angels engaged in mayhem, shots of the crowd flowing into the grounds and during the concert, and historical photos of Santana and the Jefferson Airplane.
Owens is perhaps best known for his book Suburbia, which was published in 1973 by Straight Arrow Press (also, the publisher at the time of Rolling Stone magazine). Owens documented the nascent, Northern California suburban experience of the early ’70s: a time when the phrase cul-de-sac entered the vocabulary of thousands of Americans, pre-prepared rolls of lawn were unspooled in front of brand-new tract homes, and garage sales and Tupperware parties brought communities together. Over the course of his photographic career, Owens’ photos have been exhibited internationally, they’re included within the collections of the Smithsonian Institute and the Museum of Modern Art, and they’ve been reproduced in numerous books and magazines.
Then in the early ’80s, Owens, for the most part, put professional photography behind him. He established one of the first brewpubs in California and started the magazine American Brewer. [Full disclosure: This writer’s first magazine assignment was for Owens at American Brewer.] Next, Owens became enamored with craft distilling, and founded the American Distilling Institute in 2003. In addition to his books of documentary photography like Suburbia (1973), Our Kinds of People: American Groups and Rituals (1975), and Working: I Do It for the Money (1977), he’s also the author of Modern Moonshine Techniques and the co-author of The Art of Distilling.
This year, the Italian publisher Damiani is releasing Owens’ book Altamont 1969, and appeared in New York City at The Photography Show at Pier 94 on April 5. I caught up with the blunt, opinionated, 80-year-old Owens at his group’s distilling conference in Denver, a couple of weeks before that New York event was scheduled to take place. Owens may not be one of the Rolling Stones, but among craft distillers he enjoys a certain fame: there were even photos of his face attached to small sticks that circulated among convention-goers, just in case people wanted to hold the masks up in front of their own faces and jokingly pretend to be Owens himself.
PKM: You grew up on a farm?
Bill Owens: Yes, my parents were out of the Depression. So, they came to California, and eventually settled down near Sacramento. And we had five acres of land, pasture, a cow, chickens. Always had a steer in the pasture. So, I call it a farm. My parents always thought the next depression was going to come any day now, so there’s always food in the freezer. And we walked to high school.
PKM: You went to San Francisco State University?
Bill Owens: No, I went to Chico State. I was able to get in: I couldn’t pass the GRE, I couldn’t pass the entrance exam, and, in those days, they had agricultural provisionary students who couldn’t read or write, and there were 113 of us that got in. And the next year, there was 13 of us [remaining]. And the third year, there were three of us – and I flunked out. I just knew that I couldn’t take an English class or a math class. They just wiped me out totally. So, I took sociology, golf [laughs], and things I could pass. Poetry – I’m a really good poet. My poems are incredible. Wrote poetry. And then when they finally flunked me out, I said to my roommate, “Let’s go to Europe.” And he said, “Let’s go.” So, I went to Europe and eventually hitchhiked around the world. So, I was out nine months. And then you could get back into college after you’d been gone for a year.
PKM: What did you graduate with a degree in?
Bill Owens: Industrial Arts – to be a high school shop teacher. They abolished that degree because the academic standards were so low.
I taught for three or four months, then Kennedy was assassinated, and [my then-wife] Janet and I were accepted by the Peace Corp, so we could get the hell out of this country. It was very depressing to us, who had idealism about what the country should be. And contributing. You know, the American Dream. And the assassination of Kennedy scorched that for the last 50 years.
PKM: And when did you take up photography?
Bill Owens: I took one photography class in college and got a “C.”
Janet and I were in the Peace Corp [in Jamaica] and a photographer came to our village and took pictures of us. And as soon as I saw what he was doing, I wanted to do that. So, I bought a camera and began teaching myself.
PKM: Is it fair to say that you enjoyed the technical aspect of photography as much as the artistry of it?
Bill Owens: Not at all. I always had someone print for me. I’m not going to talk technical stuff with anybody – especially computers. Get out of my face! Just talk about what is out there, I’m not interested in that technical stuff. A waste of time. People get caught up in the…I don’t know…Whereas, the Vietnam War is going full blast, it’s ’68, I’m sitting in a photography class and the instructor spent an hour talking about a pile of rocks in the composition. And when I left there, I’d go downtown and [it’s] Stop the Draft Week and [thousands of] people protesting. I had my camera out and I’d go photograph that.
“Yeah, the guy was stupid. He took off all of his clothes and tried to climb up on the stage. So, if you want to get beat up, go to a rock and roll concert, take off your clothes and try to climb up on the stage. Someone will beat you up.”
PKM: And when did you get on with a newspaper?
Bill Owens: I took three semesters, and then Janet got pregnant and I had to get a job. So I looked around and finally found it: a small town newspaper.
PKM: And that was in Livermore, California?
Bill Owens: Yeah, the Livermore Independent. I was there 14 years.
PKM: Okay, so it’s 1969. You’re about 31-years-old. You hear about this concert [at Altamont] and you’re asked to photograph it.
Bill Owens: I knew some people at the Associated Press. They called me and said, “We want to hire you for the day.” So I had to go to my editor at the newspaper, and said, “Can I cover this concert?” And she said just bring a couple photographs back for the newspaper. So, away I went. I forget what the Associated Press paid me: $150? Something like that.
So, when we got back from covering the concert, the first guy who was already in there processed his film and transmitted it. He was [with the] Associated Press. I said I had pictures of the Hells Angels beating people up. And he took a look at the film and said, “It’s too thin to print.” And he just rejected it, and we moved on. I just went home. And when I came back into the newspaper office, I just put it in the enlarger and used a number 5 grade paper: That shot was perfect. So, I got really lucky. Had he grabbed those shots and transmitted them, they would no longer have been my property. And that was everything. I owned them. If they’d gotten published by AP, I’d be screwed.
PKM: What do you remember about going to the concert? You rode your motorcycle there, right?
Bill Owens: About halfway, because there’s too many people, and walked in. I’m not interested in music, at all. I’m not playing it on the radio. I don’t go to concerts – because when I went to concerts in those days, everybody’s drunk, everybody’s stoned. I’ve got a wife and kid back home, I’m not going to go to a concert and hang out until midnight, drag my butt back in. My wife would be really pissed. So, I just didn’t.
You know, [musicians] get rich and famous – for what? Make ’em billionaires, you know. Good luck to them.
PKM: Did you feel any sense of impending violence beforehand? Had you heard that the Hells Angels were going to allegedly be “guarding” the stage?
Bill Owens: No. I didn’t know anything about that. When I got there, I looked around and the only place for me that I could go was up in the sound tower where nobody bothered me. And you just sit up there – and watch the whole thing unfold in front of me. I had a jar of water, a peanut butter sandwich. And I sat there for about five hours. And then at 2 o’clock, I’m gone. I want to go process film and go home. It’s Saturday night. I’m done.
PKM: So you had no intention of staying to see the Rolling Stones.
Bill Owens: No. Beth [Sunflower] stayed. She was part of our group and she did photograph the murder, and got into court and all that kind of stuff. That’s why we didn’t want to use our names – we don’t want to be involved in any of that stuff.
PKM: But your name was used for the photo credit, wasn’t it?
Bill Owens: No. I wouldn’t publish my name. I did not want anyone to know who I am.
PKM: Did you have some fear that the Hells Angels were going to seek retribution?
Bill Owens: My common sense is, yeah, they’ll come and murder me. Because some of their people are bad, right?
PKM: When was the first time that your images of the Hells Angels and the concert were published?
Bill Owens: Probably within a week in Rolling Stone, Esquire, the German magazines, and then all over the world.
PKM: Looking down on the scene did you have any indication of why the Hells Angels were wailing on people with pool cues?
Bill Owens: Yeah, the guy was stupid. He took off all of his clothes and tried to climb up on the stage. So, if you want to get beat up, go to a rock & roll concert, take off your clothes and try to climb up on the stage. Someone will beat you up. And that’s what he’s trying to do.
PKM: Any memories of the music that day? Santana or the Airplane?
Bill Owens: Nope. Not interested. We dug out some of that music, years and years later, when we made this film that’s on YouTube: Bill Owens-Altamont-Rolling Stones-YouTube. And it’s had over a million hits. Sometimes people will try to contact me, but I won’t respond. I think one of the Stones tried to contact me; I’m not interested.
PKM: What are some of your favorite images, your photographs from that day?
Bill Owens: I hadn’t started on Suburbia yet, so I’m still a novice as to what I’m doing. Making my shooting script, trying to figure out where I’m at and what I’m doing. I was still shooting 35mm, I wasn’t shooting 2 ¼, shooting a personal project. So, I didn’t have any favorite images. Not for years to come.
PKM: Still, what are your favorite images from the Altamont 1969 book?
Bill Owens: The naked guy walking through the crowd. Just a great, classic shot.
PKM: You did take pictures of the Jefferson Airplane. But were you still up on the tower when Marty Balin got knocked out?
Bill Owens: I don’t think he got knocked out. [The Hells Angels] just pushed him around. Maybe he got knocked out later, I don’t know. I can’t watch – because pretty soon the guy came around with a big giant pipe wrench and tried to kill me, throw me off this tower: “Get down or I’m going to knock you alongside the head.” So, it’s time for me to go home.
PKM: Who was he?
Bill Owens: No idea.
PKM: He wasn’t wearing Angels’ colors or anything?
Bill Owens: Nope. Showed him my press credentials – and he didn’t care.
PKM: So that’s when you figured your sandwich was done, your jar of water was done…
Bill Owens: I have fifteen rolls of film. I’m out of film. I did shoot five or six rolls of color, which will be in the book.
PKM: How did the Altamont 1969 book come about?
Bill Owens: [The Italian publisher Damiani] did a big book on me – my whole life and all these projects I’ve done. And Claudia [Zanfi] in Italy is one of my kind of loosey-gooesy friends/agent. And she went to Damiani and showed them the photographs. And they decided they wanted to do a book on it, because the writing on it is pretty good. When I got back I wrote down everything that happened to me during that day. So, that text is pretty good. It’s blow by blow.
PKM: Unforunately, I haven’t had a chance to see the book yet.
Bill Owens: Nobody has.
PKM: Wasn’t it released in January in Italy?
Bill Owens: No, it’s just released now. If you order it now, Amazon probably won’t ship it for another couple of weeks.
PKM: Your photos are included within the Criterion Collection DVD still gallery of the documentary Gimme Shelter.
Bill Owens: They’re in a lot of places. We’re doing a couple portfolios now for $400. I’ll be posting that soon on the Internet how you can buy them. I maintain now I’m going to get famous off of violence – which disgusts me. I don’t want to get famous off of people beating people up.
PKM: Well, that seems a little harsh on your own self-…
Bill Owens: I’d come out of the Peace Corps, participated in Stop the Draft Week. I was anti-Johnson.
I just didn’t care to hang out with rock & rollers. A lot of people did. Good luck for you. I’m an hour away from San Francisco. I’m not going to drive to San Francisco, do dope, and hang out with these people – groupies and all the other stuff – and then drive home. That’s not me.
PKM: Did you say you knew photographer Annie Leibovitz?
Bill Owens: Yeah, of course.
PKM: And Rolling Stone magazine?
Bill Owens: Yup, I was there at the very beginning, myself and [photographer] Baron Wolman. He’s got a lot of books. But again, Annie could just clean my clock. She’s there seven days a week. I had one day a week, then I had to go home and work for the newspaper. So, I couldn’t do assignments.
PKM: So, you were at the Rolling Stone offices?
Bill Owens: I would go in every Monday, and I tried to get an assignment. And I got a couple assignments. I mean, Annie’s doing the rock & roll and all this stuff. After a couple of months, I just couldn’t try, it wasn’t me.
PKM: Do you remember one or two of the other assignments that you worked on for them?
Bill Owens: I went to L.A. What did I photograph in L.A.? I think I photographed a sitcom show. I also went to a Stop the Draft protest in Portland, Oregon. But I don’t like it when people come up to me and say, “Take off your glasses, because you might get hit in the face.” I don’t want to be around that. I’m out of there! That’s no good.
PKM: So you started working on Suburbia around 1970?
Bill Owens: Yeah, it took about a year to plan it, a year to shoot it, and a year to get it published.
PKM: Did you have it preconceived as a project?
Bill Owens: I wrote it as a shooting script: I said, here’s a list of things I want to photograph. Then I put ads in the local newspaper, because I worked there. And I said let me come to your house and photograph you and your kids, whatever. So, different people would call me up. So, I get to walk in, take photographs. One of my favorite shots in the book is a Chinese family eating hot dogs at noon. And the caption is we eat hot dogs. So, it’s a joy, and whimsical stuff that I love.
PKM: It’s almost like the photographs are in your own back yard, so to speak, your neighborhood, Livermore.
Bill Owens: Absolutely. My father- and my brother-in-law, Janet’s parents, her sister and brother-in-law – [that] was right there in front of me. I didn’t have to travel. It’s seeing what there is to see – and a lot of people don’t see anything in their culture. You know, they’re not aware of anything outside of their little world. I’m seeing it all. For example, if you look at my book there’s not a single shot of a mall – 1970, there’s no malls. Today, I’d be right out at the mall. The cops would be throwing me out, for sure, because you can’t photograph in the mall.
PKM: The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam wrote that you “realized something emotional as well as physical was taking place around” you and that you did not condescend to the people that you were photographing.
Bill Owens: No. Everybody said, “You took a cheap shot on that person.” I said, “Let’s call them up and see what they say.” Because what your perception of yourself [is], or what somebody else’s perception is, is different.
PKM: You must have smirked occasionally when you got some of those quotes. Some of them are very funny.
Bill Owens: The quotes came a year later.
PKM: Please explain that to me.
Bill Owens: The book’s all done and I’m at Rolling Stone talking about the photographs, and they said, “You’ve got to do release forms.” I said, “I’m a journalist, I don’t have to do a release form.” He said, “You’re in people’s homes. You’ve got to do release forms.” Then, I’m telling stories about each person and they said, “Go back and get these quotes.” So, I made up some little release cards, 3×5 and I can turn them over and write out what the people said. Just go back to them all, I knew where they lived. I’m not a stranger, see what I mean? National Geographic couldn’t do what I’m doing. I could go to a Rotary Club, sit there having lunch with all the men in the room, the superintendent of schools walks up on the stage, introduces [himself] and gives a speech. And I push my chair back and walk up, put the camera in front of his face and take a photo and nobody notices, because I’m part of the fabric of that community – and that’s really important.
PKM: You said that you were able to get into situations in which a sociologist wouldn’t have been able to.
Bill Owens: The academics didn’t know how to have a camera. They didn’t have access. I had that newspaper, that was my access to everyone.
PKM: That’s what I thought: It was partially having the access through the…
Bill Owens: Community.
PKM: Right, there you go. Word of mouth. The community. The newspaper. But there must be something about your personality that gains you entree into the…
Bill Owens: I’m a salesman. I sell myself. I like people.
PKM: I wondered how the quotes came about, because it sounds like, while you have an eye for aesthetics, you also have an ear for quotes.
Bill Owens: I have a sense of humor.
PKM: Very much so.
Bill Owens: But you’ve got to remember sometimes the quotes, I don’t have to change a word. Other times, I’ve got to move them around a little bit. It’s the same sentence, but it’s the first sentence instead of the third sentence. There are very few that I had to totally make up. I couldn’t go back and get them, or whatever.
PKM: You made one or two up?!
Bill Owens: I think I might have, because I couldn’t find the person, so I just said “Salesman at blah blah blah…”
PKM: Oh, well that’s fine.
Bill Owens: Yeah, like that.
PKM: There’s that iconic photo of Richie holding the toy gun.
Bill Owens: He comes to all my shows now.
PKM: Your photography shows?
Bill Owens: He comes on his Harley-Davidson. Everybody loves him.
PKM: It’s funny because he doesn’t look innocent and child-like in that photo.
Bill Owens: He’s a big lovable kid now. He’s got a couple of kids, he lives in suburbia a mile from his mom. And whenever I’m having a show we invite him. Sometimes he rides a motorcycle right into where the show is. That’s fun.
PKM: You were able to travel to research your book The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits, because your agent sold a batch of photos to Elton John. Is that correct?
Bill Owens: Yeah. You know that Elton is one of the biggest photo collectors in the world?
PKM: I read that. He’s had an exhibit of his photo collection at the Tate Modern.
Bill Owens: I don’t think I was included in that exhibit. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t.
PKM: No, I think the exhibit set the parameters for the years a little earlier than when your Suburbia pictures, for instance, would have been published. He’s got photos by Man Ray, Herbert Bayer, Dorothea Lange, Irving Penn.
Bill Owens: Everybody.
PKM: You’ve taken a certain glee in calling yourself the “anti-Christ of food photography.” It’s not prettified; it’s not what would be termed “food porn” today. Yet, there’s something about the food photography that borders on the raw, almost like a cameraman on a porno set.
Bill Owens: That’s pushing it a little bit. But if you want to say that, that’s fine. I’m like everybody else: you go to restaurants, everybody’s photographing their food nowadays. I could just bring to it a certain composition that no one else could do. I see it in colors and designs as a painter would see something.
One of my favorite photographs is the Four Corners of the United States – you know, Utah, Arizona, whatever. And I’m in the parking lot, and you can see the big Four Corners mountains in the background – and in the front of the shot there’s like ten Port-O-Sans. And they’re all the same color as the mountains. Everybody else stands there and photographs the mountain – they don’t see the Port-O- Sans. Or I find it ironic that there’s a row of Port-O-Sans, because later that day there’s going to be 500 cars in that parking lot. Everybody taking a photograph of the same mountain from the same direction, the same sunshine, and showing them to their friends. I take something that’s ironic, sardonic. That’s what’s fun.