In 1972, Joseph Szabo, a 28-year-old art and photography teacher at Malverne High School, Long Island, was struggling to connect with his pupils. So he started taking pictures of them. “I tried to photograph everybody,” he says, speaking on the phone from Long Island, where he still lives. “I wanted to include every kind of student, whether they were a stereotype or not in terms of what a teenager should be, and I think the kids saw that. They respected that, and I think they liked that.”
Soon Szabo was photographing his students not just during class, but also after school at local hang-outs, on the beach and even in their homes. As he writes in the foreword to his seminal 1978 book Almost Grown: “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.”
Forty-five years on, Szabo’s languorous, unpolished pictures of American youth culture – which go on show in London next month – amount to one of photography’s most influential time capsules, inspiring film directors Sofia Coppola and Cameron Crowe among others.
With their free-flowing hair and bell-bottomed jeans, many of Szabo’s subjects are fixed in the Seventies by their wardrobes, but the era is also evident in their demeanour in front of the camera – an aloof, unselfconscious quality, devoid of artifice or performance, that according to Szabo is harder to come by these days.
“At that time, there weren’t a lot of people carrying cameras on the street and taking pictures,” he says. “Nowadays everybody has their cell phone, so everybody’s a photographer, right? I also think now there’s less trust because of everything that’s going on with computers and with hacking, the whole business.”
Has it become trickier for him to approach strangers with his camera, I ask? “There probably is more suspicion now than there was,” he says, “but I’m still able to connect with the people that I photograph, because they sense something about me is okay.”
Nevertheless, when Szabo hits the beach today, to photograph Long Islanders at rest during the summer months, he always carries a book of his work, to prove that things are, as he puts it, “on the up and up”.
Szabo, who retired from teaching in 1999, says he never expected his work to have any reach beyond the corridors of Malverne High but he admits that over the years, as he continued to photograph teenagers at their most free and unfiltered, he realised he was on to something.
“There were times when I was photographing where I would say, ‘I can’t wait to develop and print those and see what’s there.’ So it was like a little gold mine,” he says, “and I was the only one mining that gold with a camera.”
Joseph Szabo and Siân Davey is at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London SW3 (020 7352 3649) from April 6
Lifeguard, a photobook collecting images from Szabo's 25 years photographing lifeguards at Jones Beach, New York, will be released in May.