IN THE '70S, BEFORE DROPPING OUT OF photography for a couple of decades to brew beer, photographer Bill Owens documented the post-war American dream turning sour. Meeting a wide range of suburban Americans, Owens photographed them in their natural habitats--living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, garages--and joined the images with quotes from their subjects. Images from his three books (Suburbia, Our Kind of People, and Working) are currently on view at Greg Kucera, and depict a Californian suburbia whose residents attempt to keep their hold on the images and rites of the past--a task which is difficult in a modern world designed to break down the social institutions those rites were based in.

Seen from the perspective of the late '90s, these photos are strange; their world no longer exists. Seen from the perspective of someone who lived through the time as a child--as I did--their strangeness is memory-triggering; a teenager would hardly know what to make of them. They exist in relation to our time in the exact way images of the '50s related to my childhood in the '70s, which is to say, there's no relationship. At the core, the issues explored by Owens resonate, but the superficial decor--shag rugs, bad haircuts, V8 engines, huge hair curlers, Tupperware, fringed curtains--garbles the messages, leaving us with kitsch instead of pathos, jokes in place of deep meanings.

The show is only partly about these objects, which must have looked strange to an outsider even then. What beats at its core is the sense that something is broken, that the egregious sentimentality of these homes masks a deficit in their occupants' lives.

Two people, a young man and woman, sit on a bed in their underwear. The woman has her shirt off, and her long hair drapes over her breasts. The accompanying quote reads, "We feel most people have the wrong attitude towards sex, that it's nasty and to be done in the dark. With us sex takes care of itself." Now, the guy does have a bad Ringo Starr look going on, and the few things visible in the room--the shabby bed with Federal-style posts, an overly ornamental electrical outlet--are silly. But what catches the eye is what's absent: the general featurelessness of the room, whose undetailed white walls, flocked ceiling, and small, curtainless metal-frame sliding window have an almost terrifying blankness. What else would one fill this vacuum with but sex, and plenty of it?

This piece leans on its accompanying quote for pathos, but many of the images would have done just as well or better by themselves. The quotes, mounted into the mats under each photo, draw the eye away from examining the rich detail of the images; and the quotes are too often generic, drawing little from the photographs. In the photo running with this review, the long caption (which is supposed to run underneath, but I'll just put it here) reads, "I don't feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect on his personality. (He already wants to be a policeman.) His childhood gun-playing won't make him into a cop-shooter. By playing with guns he learns to socialize with other children. I find the neighbors who are offended by Richie's gun, either the father hunts or their kids are the first to take Richie's gun and go off and play with it."

It's beyond me why the photographer felt that his incredibly potent image--a suburban equivalent to Diane Arbus' famous image of a kid holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park--needed this flaccid quote to draw out its horror. A series of color prints from 1979 and 1980, which will be added to the black-and-white originals in an updated edition of Suburbia, do much better with less. The titles are evocative without pinning anything down--Bourbon and 7-Up, My Favorite Drink (1980) features a kitchen with a pumpkin, a bottle of whiskey, and two soda bottles in the foreground, along with kids playing football outside the window. In Hockney Painted this Pool, Hollywood (1980) the slight imperfections, like fall leaf-stains on the cement, separate this too-real pool from the perfect visions of Hockney's paintings.

Owens' incisive eye is able to capture the mundane and the eccentric in a single image. Beauty queen contestants (swimsuit competition) line up with their backs to the camera--one wearing a platform-heeled leg cast. A lady at a Tupperware party appears to have a makeup-covered black eye. A yard scene shows one boy in the branches of a small tree, picking off the leaves so his brother can rake them up. These images don't satirize the culture they document, or glamorize it. They find small moments that give generic scenes the force of low comedy or high tragedy, and move you long after they stop making you laugh.

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