His photographs have graced album covers, inspired Vogue’s famed creative director Grace Coddington, and were even a point of reference for Sophia Coppola while directing The Virgin Suicides. Just what is it about photographer Joseph Szabo‘s images of the teenage experience that strike such a chord?
The acclaimed photographer, whose work is part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, worked for over 25 years as a teacher at Malverne High School on Long Island. It was here, starting in 1972, that he turned his camera on his students, documenting these pivotal years. Szabo, who had studied photography at the Pratt Institute, used his craft as a coping mechanism to bridge the gap between himself and his students.
“The camera helped me to approach and connect with my students both in and out of class,” Szabo writes via email. “As I photographed my students I sensed they liked my attention and it made them feel important. So I became more inclusive of all students in my school and established relationships that resulted in trust and respect that many successful teachers have.”
Szabo’s photography is a reflection of the teenage experience. He manages to expertly insert himself into their world, capturing the joy, heartbreak, insecurity, and self-confidence that peppers adolescence. In this way, the work is a timeless, compelling visual diary that transcends the era in which it was shot.
The photographic bond that tied Szabo and his students together has continued throughout the years, with the photographer often hearing from them. “I am constantly in touch with my students. They express their feelings and often say how great it was that I photographed them as teenagers,” Szabo tells us. One student, Lili, wrote, “the purpose of life is to discover your gift…the meaning of life is to give it away…thank you for keeping the memory.”
Joseph Szabo: Website