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August 14th, 2009

AFTER STAFF A Closer Look – Bill Owens, the distiller, published a book of art photography once…

Posted by liveBooks

Bill Owens is known for his seminal photography book, Suburbia, which stemmed in many ways from his work as a staff photographer at the Livermore Independent starting in 1968. But according to Bill, he hasn’t been a photographer for decades. He ran Buffalo Bill’s Brewery for more than a decade and is now offering online distilling classes and working on a table-top book about the craft. Of course it’s great if you can parlay your skills as a staff photographer into other photo-related work. But maybe the best lesson from Bill’s story is that, sometimes, you just gotta go make whiskey instead — and “take pictures” just because you want to.
©Bill Owens

©Bill Owens

Miki Johnson: So tell me what you’re working on now.

Bill Owens: I don’t do photography anymore. I have so many things I’ve done and I can’t get it to come back to me in sales or work or anything. I don’t know what to do but to have another career, to be into distilling. I’m available as a photographer, but the distilling thing is exciting. I make money every day of the week and I have a career. People want to know how to make whiskey, I have a product people want to know about.

MJ: What about your books that you’ve already produced?

BO: You’ve got to remember that your royalties are only like $1.95 on a $30 book. So the books only open up museum and gallery shows. Museum shows don’t sell prints. Galleries can sell prints, but I’m the documentary stuff that’s in a weird category. I’m not William Eggleston, who’s an artist. People buy “art.” They don’t buy somebody who spent their life researching and documenting and trying to make a visual statement about our culture. Maybe that tide will turn and they’ll buy documentary photography because it speaks to them, but it ain’t happening now.

I have hands-on distilling classes now and I have a trade show. I have a life. I have an e-learning class on my website — I’ve made $1,000  on it already. I’ve got a new niche! You’ve got to be making film. It’s film that sells. People can’t take their eyes off of videos. I can put up any kind of film and they’ll stand there and watch it all the way to the end. But if it’s a still photograph they’ll glance at it and walk away. I’m going to take some of my digital films that are up on my website — and thank god I never posted them on YouTube — and I’m going to turn them into DVDs and try to sell them at MoMA and art museums as a DVD collection. I think I can find that little niche because people know my book and who I am, so I can sell them a DVD of my movies.

©Bill Owens

©Bill Owens

MJ: I wanted to ask about working for the Livermore Independent, what prompted you to get started there?

BO: I knew to be a good photographer you have to work at the craft every single day and develop the craft every single day, and as a newspaper photographer you’re out there working all the time. So I wanted to come from that discipline of shooting every day. And as soon as you arrive in suburbia there’s a million things to photograph. When I was in college I studied visual anthropology and I knew “the village” was an eternal subject. Like W. Eugene Smith’s Spanish Village or the FSA’s studies of America. So I just knew I wanted to go in that direction, and there I was in Livermore, a typical village in America.

I never started out to do a book. But I began to shoot…I did a study for the chamber of commerce for the town. I got a $500 grant. Then you just keep on grown, but you keep working at the newspaper because you’re exposed to high school football, the JV, the Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club, the Fire Department, all that stuff. And you can shoot and shoot and shoot, and then you can go back and do it again. And I knew everybody in town so when it came time to do the book and get releases signed I could go back and get a quote and put together something important. I usually say, “Man, leave the Eskimos alone; leave the American Indians alone — they’ve been photographed enough.” Photograph what’s right in front of your face.

“Photograph what’s right in front of your face.”

MJ: What made you finally decide to leave the paper?

BO: The paper downsized and I got laid off. So you can freelance it for a while but if you’ve got a wife and kids you’ve got to have money. You’ve got to support your kids to go to college. I was there for 16 years, and then I had Buffalo Bill’s Brewery for 14 years. I found a Nikon under the front seat of my car one day and I sold it. I had to move on.

©Bill Owens

©Bill Owens

MJ: Has anything changed for you now that photography is not your “profession” anymore?

BO: I don’t know what to say when people ask what I do. Often I say I string for the New York Times — because I do it once every two years. But I don’t pursue it because I’d rather be on the phone with a glassmaker in Illinois about my upcoming conference. I have three people working for me in that business, and it’s fun to build a small business. Whereas a photographer, you’re alone, it’s just you.

MJ: But you still take photos just for yourself. Do you find that it’s different now that you shoot for yourself instead of a paper?

BO: No, I work the same. I’m looking for the great shot always. But, I made a trip across America, four months, and I have 52 DVDs full of images. You want to go through that? What’s the end gain when I’m done with it? No one’s going to buy it. These agencies don’t want a photo of the Grand Canyon that’s mine with a sense of humor, they want the beautiful sunset one. I’ll just move on. But I’m shooting film, that’s really fun. I shoot with a little Sony, lo-res. It doesn’t matter. People always ask, “What kind of camera?” I say, “Whatever camera fits in your hand.” It’s not about the camera, it’s about having an idea in your head and an eye. If you don’t have an eye, go have lunch.

MJ: So are there any similarities between running this business and being a photographer?

BO: I usually take photographs and turn them into illlustrations for the business. I told you about that trip across America, all those images are in a new book called The Art of Distilling Whiskey and other Spirits. It’s going to be a big table-top book. So now I take my skills as a photojournalist into the distilling world and do great photographs of distilling.

Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.


  1. October 28th, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Bill Owens on photography :: Scope of Practice

    […] AFTER STAFF A Closer Look – Bill Owens, the distiller, published a book of art photography onc… […]

  2. December 24th, 2009 at 10:14 pm

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  4. January 13th, 2010 at 5:37 pm


    I'm glad he's happy, but it's sad to me. He did such a wonderful job on Suburbia, maybe I'm connected to it because I grew up in the same area. Yo Bill, I'm still a fan! I'd like to try your whiskey too.


  5. July 21st, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Bill Owens | Cada d

    […] Entrevista a Bill Owens en livebooks (EN [3f]), […]

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