Joseph Szabo has photographed teenagers for the past four decades. His images perfectly capture the nuances and emotions of adolescence, and they document his subjects in moments of uncertainty, reflection, longing, bravado, exuberance and awkwardness as they dip a toe into the waters of adulthood.
As Cornell Capa wrote in the foreword of Szabo's first book, Almost Grown, “Szabo’s camera is sharp, incisive, and young, matching his subjects. One can use many adjectives: revealing, tender, raucous, sexy, showy... in Szabo’s hands, the camera is magically there, the light is always available, the moment is perceived, seen, and caught.”
Over the last 40 years, Szabo has quietly built a reputation and cult following as the quintessential photographer of the teenager. While he has published books and had gallery shows, an exhibition at the Heckscher Museum, in Huntington, New York, that opens this month marks Szabo's first major retrospective. Appropriately located on Long Island—where the majority of the work was made—the show draws from the photographer's extensive archive and features images from his four books: Almost Grown, Teenage, Rolling Stones Fans and Jones Beach. Work from his recently rediscovered suburban landscape series Hometown are also on display.
The setting for his first museum show is also significant because Szabo was a young art teacher at Malverne High School, in Long Island, in the early 1970s. He began photographing his disinterested and undisciplined teenage students as a way to connect with them, and Szabo found himself drawn to the kids, gaining a sense of what was happening in their lives. "It was always the emotional aspect I was looking for," Szabo said in a recent documentary called The Joseph Szabo Project. "I wanted them to express who they are. There's a beauty to that honesty, and I wanted to get below the surface to reflect their lives in a nonjudgmental way." The resulting body of work, which starts in the classroom before branching out to the school grounds, parties and Jones Beach, is a celebration of teenage experience. Or as Szabo describes it: “The years of restless desire and blossoming sexuality. The world of high school, parking lots and street corners, and the uniquely American culture in which all of us have grown up.”
Szabo's images are a candid document of coming of age in small towns and suburban America. "You try to capture life in the moment that speaks to you," he says in the Joseph Szabo Project. "They are fleeting—one moment it's there and then its gone." His intimate and iconic images are picture-perfect proof of these fleeting moments—memories magically captured and frozen forever.
Coming of Age in America: The Photography of Joseph Szabo is on display at the Heckscher Museum of Art, Long Island, New York through March 25.
To see more of Joseph Szabo's work on LightBox, click here.