Powerful Photographs of Adolescence in the 1970s and Today

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PromPhotography by Sian Davey, Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Joseph Szabo and Sian Davey's respective series, made of young people 50 years ago and today, demonstrate the unchanging power of adolescence

No fewer than 50 years elapsed between the periods when Joseph Szabo and Sian Davey were creating their respective photo-series on adolescence – Szabo as an art teacher in the early 1970s, in search of a means of building trust with the students he taught at Malverne High School in Long Island, and Davey while creating her ongoing series based on the late teenage years of her stepdaughter, Martha. And yet, as a new exhibition placing these two bodies of work side by side demonstrates, there’s a magic which permeates both, aptly showing that in some ways at least, adolescence now is the same as it always has been: difficult, joyful, painful, intimate.

The exhibition pairing the two, which opens at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery today, is named Untethered – an appropriate term given the notions of connection and disconnection which underpin it. The idea to bring the two series together originated with Hoppen himself. Both Davey and Szabo were fascinated by the ineffable power of adolescence, but for Davey, the proximity of her willing subject – her stepdaughter Martha – lent the process a special kind of intensity. “I began the project without any parameters or expectations, which I felt was really important,” says Davey, who had previously worked for many years as a psychotherapist before turning to photography. “I walked alongside her life, and her experience of adolescence and growing up. And that meant it’s actually quite complex in terms of how we were together, in relational terms, because I had to shift my perspective as she was changing. It began just about the two of us, in the domestic space at home. And of course, as a child begins growing into a woman, you’ve got a child and woman in the same body, they begin to individuate and naturally separate from the family. Including me. So there was a push and pull. I didn’t quite know where to position myself for a while; I had to keep assessing the boundaries.”

Similarly, for Szabo, the series grew as a method of connecting to his students. “I was able to establish a powerful relationship with my students because of certain guys and girls who I was drawn to,” he said. “We had a special bond, and because of that they helped me a great deal as intermediaries. With their help and trust, I was able to photograph and get to know teenagers at their parties, in their homes, and families, friends, and show them in a truthful and realistic light.” One relationship sparked the next: “These close friends gave the nod, so to speak, that I was an alright guy who could be trusted and would never betray a confidence.”

What’s the resonance today of an exhibition which places adolescence in the limelight, twice over? Most of all, it reinforces a positive perspective of that vulnerable, powerful time. Looking back on his Teenage series now, Szabo says, “Makes me feel really, really special. And grateful for such a tremendous experience.” “I laughed a lot,” Davey agrees. “It was really joyful, at times. Martha is extraordinary.”

Untethered: Joseph Szabo and Sian Davey runs until May 20, 2017, at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London.