Minneapois Institute of Arts
New Pictures at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

ENTRY POSTED Sep 13, 2011

Photographer’s File Provides Item for the Permanent Collection: What a Messy Room!

Bill Owens, American born 1938
Christina’s Room, 1971
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Bill Owens and Robert Harshorn Shimshak 99.226.1


In 1972 photographer Bill Owens published his first and most important book, Suburbia, which documented the exploding growth of tract housing developments in California. Concentrating on the residents, Owens pictured them proudly situated in their new interiors, with their new possessions, interacting with their new neighbors.

The MIA never sought out an example from this notable series, but ended up acquiring one by pure serendipity. In 1999, Robert Harshorn Shimshak, Owens’s representative, visited the museum and met with me to discuss the photographer’s work. As we were looking casually through the MIA’s file on Owens, Shimshak excitedly pointed out that we had two vintage prints of one of the pictures from the Suburbia series, which had apparently been sent in the 1970s to Fred Parker, an independent curator who gave us his files after he resumed working as an artist. Before there was much of an art market for photographic prints, photographers such as Owens often sent original prints out for publicity or mere reference purposes.

Our two prints of Christina’s Room were vintage but not signed, and Shimshak offered to have Owens sign one of them for our collection, in exchange for letting them keep the second one. We agreed to do this, and subsequently formally accessioned the Owens photograph, as an easy way of adding it to the collection at no cost.

Most of the pictures in the Suburbia book are accompanied by a sentence or two of text, contributed by the subject or, in the case of Christina’s Room, one of her parents. It reads, “I wanted Christina to learn some responsibility for cleaning her room, but it didn’t work.” Note that Christina was not even a teenager yet, so imagine what her room looked like five years later.
Christian A. Peterson, associate curator of photographs

Category: Inside Stories of the Collection

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