Being a teenager on Long Island is often synonymous with time spent in parking lots, on street corners, at house parties and on the beach.
A new exhibition, "Coming of Age in America: The Photography of Joseph Szabo," which opens at the Heckscher Museum of Art on Saturday, catalogs and celebrates the ungainly world of the suburban adolescent. Szabo's images, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s, capture a time and place that is both incredibly specific in hairstyle and dress, yet utterly universal in emotion. He portrays a time that straddles the inexperience of childhood and the desires and dangers of adulthood, making for iconic moments familiar to anyone who has ever walked a high school hall.
Bored art teacher
The series was born almost by accident, starting as a simple way for a teacher to connect to his students. In the early 1970s, Szabo was bored with his job as an art teacher at Malverne High School, so he brought his camera to school to take pictures of his students and teach them about portraits, all while breaking down the barrier of apathy in his classroom.
"I wanted to understand the students more and get closer to them," says Szabo, who lives in Amityville. He became the photo supervisor for the yearbook and had his camera with him at all times. "I took more and more pictures of the students, and then it dawned on me that it might be a very interesting and serious direction to pursue."
Szabo had come to Long Island for a teaching job after receiving an MFA in photography from the Pratt Institute in 1968. Four books of his work have been published, including "Teenage" (1978) and "Jones Beach" (2010), and his images have been exhibited at the Venice (Italy) Biennial, the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, among others.
Evoking Long Island
The Heckscher Museum, which exhibited one of Szabo's photos in 1974, will feature 54 black-and-white prints. Curator Lisa Chalif believes the images will resonate deeply with Long Islanders.
"These photographs certainly evoke Long Island and the place that we are, as well as a deeper, more universal experience of teenhood," Chalif said. "You may not have gone to Jones Beach as a teen, but you felt everything the teens in these photos express."