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Burt Owen’s career offers a useful case study in the movement of professionals through the overlapping sectors of the New York photography world in the 1950s and early 1960s. Owen was one of the busiest of photographers during this period, with an active commercial career and obvious artistic ambitions. The variety of venues in which his work appeared makes his career and oeuvre difficult to reconstruct. Owen contributed articles and images to handbooks for amateur photographers, showed his more artistic work in Greenwich Village galleries and contributed photographs to art-photography yearbooks like the American Annual of Photography. As a commercial photographer, he shot pin-ups, theatre scenes for The New York Times, fashion poses, true crime covers and the images for books on golf technique. By the time of his death in an automobile accident, in 1964, Owen was working near the upper levels of New York magazine photography, with covers for Woman’s Day and photo spreads in Sport magazine. Owen’s artistic photography is polished but undistinguished, marked by stylistic eclecticism and a weakness for oddly-framed children and animals. A sampling of Owen’s commercial and artistic photography may be found below.
Burt Owen’s boldest and most original photographic work was a series of cover images for the Dell magazine Inside Detective covers in the 1950s and early 1960s. Owen’s true crime cover work from this period stands out for its inventiveness and clear challenge to the clichés of the genre. Owen refrained from what German scholar Maria Tatar calls the “morbid carnality” common in images of the aestheticized female victim or murderous female temptress. Owen was no stranger to the commercial exploitation of erotic imagery; he sold covers to men’s magazines like Gent and photo spreads to the “figure photography” magazines popular at the time. Nevertheless, the majority of his covers for Inside Detective show men and women as equally anguished participants in rough-edged, unglamorous moments of frozen drama. Other cover photographers during this period used the trend against 40s glamour as a pretext for posing women in ways that highlighted their degradation or vulnerability. Owen emphasized instead the banality of his settings and ordinariness of his subjects.
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