Not long after he began teaching art at Malverne High School on Long Island in 1972, Joseph Szabo was given the opportunity to set up a photography class. Inspired by this idea, he first organized a “photography club” and later darkroom classes for the students, so that they could learn from his knowledge of photography and experience gained at the renowned New York Pratt Institute. He soon realised, however, that his passion for the medium was not shared by his students; they did not take photography seriously and lacked both discipline and enthusiasm. But this changed abruptly when he began to take their portraits. This approach was successful and led to one of the most vivid and beautiful series of photographs featuring teenagers.
Joseph Szabo continued to photograph young people for more than twenty-five years. The portraits, mainly from the 1970s and 1980s, present a fascinating view of both the teenagers’ forlornness and their unbridled lust for life. They show that Joseph Szabo not only took an interest in these young people during an often difficult time in their lives, but also took them seriously. “I wanted my pictures to show who these young people were and who they wanted to be. I wanted to capture their fragile beauty,” explains Szabo. The teenagers rewarded Szabo for his respectful portrayal of their youth with their trust and openness. Whenever they met up, partied or “hung out” on the beach, it was completely normal for him to be there, too. Yet he maintained a balance between intimacy and distance. Szabo’s pictures are those of an observer who was there but who did not belong. And who accepted the young people as they were. The photographs were never staged or set up. Not even the image of Priscilla, an impetuously childlike young smoker, which gained cult status and was later used for an album cover by the band Dinosaur Jr. “I turned round on the beach – and there she was. I had three seconds and then she was gone.”
Of course young people at the time were aware of being photographed. But the pictures usually ended up in a drawer, a photo album or at best in the school yearbook. Photographs were something special, precious and private. Nowadays, everybody takes endless numbers of snapshots and nobody knows on what websites or in which social media they will end up. In this respect, Joseph Szabo’s images are also witnesses to an era in which photography, in particular involving young people, seems almost innocent, at least from today’s perspective.
born in Toledo, Ohio, USA
1966 - 1968
studied Photography at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, USA
1972 – 1999
taught photography at Malverne High School on Long Island, New York and at International Center of Photography in New York
received National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Visual Arts Fellowship
lives and works in Amityville, New York, USA.