The teenagers Joseph Szabo photographed in the Seventies and Eighties make out, sneak cigarettes, mug for the camera and pose lost in thought — normal teenage stuff, really. But the mystery of those high-school years permeates “Teenage,” the coffee-table album set for an October release from Greybull Press that boasts 168 of Szabo’s black-and-white photographs.
Szabo was a teacher at Malverne High School on Long Island when he pointed his 35-mm Canon at the classes of 1972 through 1985. “I have a feeling it would be very, very difficult to do this now because of the times we live in,” Szabo says. “There’s just a lot of distrust we now have in society.”
When the MFA-grad from Pratt Institute began teaching photography at Malvene, he was only 28, twice the age of his charges. Shooting them “really came about as partly frustration,” he says. “There were many good kids, but there were so many who didn’t seem to care about the classroom or education. I thought either I make a connection or give up teaching. They really took to the attention of the camera. I saw this as a way to bridge the gap.”
Many of the photographs originally appeared in Szabo’s first publishing effort in 1978, “Almost Grown.” Looking to do a book of his pictures of teens snapped on Jones Beach, he was introduced by Bruce Weber to Greybull’s Lisa Eisner and Roman Alonso, who convinced Szabo to compile his work in a book that expanded on the first.
Former students keep in touch, and one sought him out at Colette in Paris at his book party a couple of weeks ago. “You think if anything, they’ll end up hating you,” says Szabo, “but it worked the other way, too. They really helped me look at them and not be judgmental.”
Of course, Szabo, who carried his camera everywhere, says he was only thinking about snapping shots for the yearbook. Yet, he must have known he was chronicling something else, too. “I think people relate to the teenagers not only because of the era, but because there’s something in them that echoes one’s own experience at that age,” says Szabo, who now teaches college-level courses at the International Center of Photography in New York, where he’ll attend a book signing on Oct. 3.
As Cameron Crowe writes in a forward to the tome, “Nothing lasts forever, except high school.”