These 11 Photographers Captured the Banal Beauty of the American Suburbs
Not all suburbs in America consist of tree-lined streets, cookie-cutter homes, shiny cars, and swimming pools. But this is the utopian vision of suburbia that has been cemented in the public conscience since the postwar era. During that time, G.I. Bill of Right benefits and low housing costs lured Americans to newly developed communities outside of cities. While ads and sitcoms like The Brady Bunch romanticized the suburban lifestyle as a realization of the American Dream, critics condemned suburbia as the embodiment of a society at its most stifling, unoriginal, and homogenous.
Photographers, too, looked beyond city streets to explore the landscape and faces of suburbia—and continue to do so today. One of the first was the legendary William Eggleston, who found beauty in the banality of his Southern hometown in the 1970s; more recently, photographers Larry Sultan and Laura Migliorino have challenged the suburbs’ stock depictions in the media and popular culture. The picture-perfect, if superficial, suburban stereotypes have also inspired a slew of horror flicks and suspenseful dramas—think Disturbia, Desperate Housewives, and Stranger Things—and chilling cinematic images of domestic life by Gregory Crewdson and Holly Andres.
As a 35-year-old mother of three living in her small Missouri hometown, Blackmon returned to photography, which she had studied as an undergrad, to both escape and engage with domestic life. Inspired by the genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, her staged photographs offer a dramatic, and often humorous, glimpse into the chaos of her life in an idyllic suburb: toddlers playing dress-up, practicing violin, and idling about, surrounded by the clutter and comfort of their homes.
Hido’s first monograph House Hunting (2001) features images of dark, seemingly empty suburban homes—somewhat voyeuristically captured from the roadside at night. “I take photographs of houses at night because I wonder about the families inside them,” he has written. “I wonder about how people live, and the act of taking that photograph is a meditation.” A native of suburban Kent, Ohio, the Bay Area-based photographer was taught by Larry Sultan to “draw from within, to use your own history as the basis for your art.”
Inspired by his upbringing in San Fernando Valley, Sultan’s work explores the complexity of life in the suburbs, which he found overlooked in pop culture’s one-dimensional, stereotyped depictions. In one project, he examined photography’s role in defining family identity by capturing his aging parents in their home alongside imagery pulled from albums and home videos. For “The Valley” (1988), Sultan ventured behind the scenes of the region’s most infamous industry: pornography. “I love that quality of things being out of control, especially in the suburbs, because suburbia is the height of imposed control,” he said in an interview in the early 2000s. More than 200 works by Sultan, who passed away in 2009, is currently featured in a retrospective at SFMOMA.
In Portland-based Andres’s photographs, casts of adolescents confront their darkest fears and temptations in the confines and woodsy environs of their suburban homes. Particularly transfixed on the inner lives of young girls, and inspired by the storylines of Nancy Drew, Andres crafts mysterious narratives in her work. Her series “The Fallen Fawn” (2015) depicts two sisters who find a deserted suitcase and play dress-up with its contents, and in “Sparrow Lane” (2008), teenage girls sleuth for hidden knowledge in attics, bedrooms, and stairways.
While shooting for a Bay Area newspaper, Owens was often sent on assignment to cover the new suburban housing developments that had sprouted up amidst the influx of westward migration in the ’60s. Though initially wary of a lack of interesting subject matter, he ended up befriending locals and returned on Saturdays to photograph them in their homes. These photographs, published in the hit 1972 book Suburbia, depict the homeowners alongside their own commentary, providing an empathetic and honest glimpse into the pursuit of the American Dream.
Christianity and consumerism, two pillars of traditional suburbia, converge in this shot by New York-based photographer Strassheim from her 2004 “Left Behind” series. The image shows a midwestern family saying grace around a table in an otherwise vacant McDonald’s, with dangling Christmas decorations hinting that it’s holiday season. Strassheim grew up in a Catholic household in Minnesota and began her career as a certified forensic and biomedical photographer—a background echoed in her strikingly symmetrical, well-lit compositions, which have been interpreted to reflect the strict control suburbanites assert over their lives.
When Eggleston debuted his color photographs of southern life in a 1976 solo show at MoMA, the New York Times deemed it “a case, if not of the blind leading the blind, at least the banal leading the banal”—and later, the “most hated show of the year.” Now widely celebrated, the images indeed depict the most mundane of scenes in and around his hometown of Memphis: a teenager pushing a shopping cart, a cookie-cutter house on an empty green lawn, a bicycle abandoned on the sidewalk, cars parked on nondescript streets. What irked critics even more was Eggleston’s use of color, which was then considered garish and commercial amongst fine art photographers.
Since the 1990s, Crewdson has created elaborately detailed, dramatically lit stage sets that subvert the American suburban fantasy, evoking instead the melancholy side of small-town life. His surreal photographs see women staring blankly out of kitchen windows, abandoned cars paused at intersections, and shoppers illuminated in parking lots at night. “It’s very hard to describe what I’m looking for—something that feels both familiar and strange at the same time,” Crewdson has said of his approach. “It’s not enough for it just to be strange or mysterious, it also has to feel very ordinary, very familiar, and very nondescript.”
Bush’s “Vector Portraits” series offers a fascinating documentation of “car culture” in America—engendered by the rise of suburbia, and the extensive highway construction that came with it. He began the series upon moving to Los Angeles—the “car capital of the world”—in the mid-’80s. By mounting a tripod on the passenger side of his car, he captured drivers cruising along freeways at various speeds and framed by the windows of their colorful cars. “I wanted to look at the changing and elusive space of driving—where we seem to feel invisible not only because we are enclosed but because of the speed we are traveling,” he once explained.
“When I think of suburbanites, I think white, Christian, straight and Republican, but these portraits tell a different story,” Migliorino says of her series “The Hidden Suburbs.” Witnessing increasing diversity in the suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the photographer captured minority and immigrant families, as well as biracial and same-sex couples, standing proudly in front of their homes and superimposed by imagery of their surrounding neighborhoods. Migliorino’s photographs challenge the stereotype of the typical suburbanite—and celebrate the persistence of the American Dream.
In the mid-2000s, Stimac drove around suburbs across the country, from Illinois to Florida to Texas, with his ears perked for the sound of lawnmowers. The resulting images picture teenagers and the elderly alike wielding mowers of all sizes, on lawns both patchy and pristine. Like cars, lawns can function as indicators of socio-economic class; Stimac described his series in one 2007 interview as “a critical look at the front yard of the American dream, a slice of who some of us are and where we live at the beginning of the 21st Century.”