In the four decades since he was documenting the youth culture of the 1970s, Joseph Szabo’s photography has become almost synonymous with the decade of rock’n’roll and punk. As a 28-year-old, Szabo was working as an art and photography teacher at Malverne High School, Long Island, and he was finding it difficult to connect with his students. It was then that he decided to start photographing them.
Soon, the Ohio-born was photographing kids outside of school and at their favorite hang-out spots, managing to capture the essence of growing up during that era. “Theirs is a world rarely witnessed by parents. Here is what kids do together – at the beach or the drive-in, during and after school – what they themselves describe as ‘doing nothing’ because it is neither work nor play,” he wrote in the preface to his seminal 1978 book Almost Grown.
In the years since, Szabo has become a photographer of global renown, with his works being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The International Center of Photography in New York City, as well as the Venice Biennale. Still, he is still mostly identified with his photographs of the 1970s American teenage culture.
“I never had any agenda with my photography – it was never a money-making thing, it was just about connecting with young people – and so I think my photographs have a sort of authentic or genuine quality that a lot of people seem able to relate to,” Joseph once told Huck Magazine. “I have always tried to capture these very personal moments, in an honest way, to show people doing exactly what they’re doing. They could just be sitting on the school steps smoking a cigarette or they could be hanging out of a car door waving their hands and saying, ‘This is the last day of school and I’ll never come back here again!’ They could be jumping in the air with excitement because of the music they’re listening to or they could be like one of my all-time favorites Priscilla – the little girl smoking at Jones Beach – who expresses something about girlhood as well as something about a certain kind of maturity and experience.”
“All these subjects and moments mean so much to me,” the 72-year-old says of his pictures. “They helped me understand people and allowed me to connect with them over the years. I hope they mean something to other people too.”
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