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Joseph Szabo’s Semi-Autobiographical Portrait of Suburban America in the 1970s

Joseph Szabo’s Semi-Autobiographical Portrait of Suburban America in the 1970s

In his new book Hometown, photographer Joseph Szabo takes us back to the golden age of suburbia to create an enduring portrait of the American Dream.
Hometown © Joseph Szabo, Courtesy of Damiani

Following World War II, suburban hamlets began to spring up across the United States; like fields of dandelions they spread like weeds as the emerging middle class bought into the “American Dream” — a private home on a plot of land where they could raise a nuclear family with all the comforts of mid-century modernism. As real estate developments rolled out across previously pristine lands, acres of cookie-cutter homes dotted the landscape making it difficult to distinguish one region of the country from another. 

But for American photographer Joseph Szabo, individuality found a way to make itself known, bursting through the beige like a splash of color. In his latest book, Hometown (Damiani, October 13), Szabo offers a topography of suburbia with a distinctive twist, as a sense of personal style emerges within a serene landscape replete with manicured lawns and muscle cars, sagging porches and lawn furniture. 

Hometown © Joseph Szabo, Courtesy of Damiani

Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1944, Szabo is just a touch older than the Baby Boomers whose lifestyle has come to define the image of mainstream American culture over the past seven decades. After receiving his MFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Szabo taught photography at Malverne High School in Long Island from 1972-1999 and began documenting his students’ lives, creating a mesmerizing portrait of teen romance, angst, adventure, and rebellion in critically acclaimed monographs including TeenageJones Beach, LifeguardAlmost Grown, and Rolling Stone Fans. 

“You try to capture life in the moment that speaks to you. They are fleeting—one moment it’s there and then its gone,” Szabo revealed in The Joseph Szabo Project, a 2011 documentary film that explores 1970s suburban life through his eyes.

Hometown © Joseph Szabo, Courtesy of Damiani
Hometown © Joseph Szabo, Courtesy of Damiani

The Golden Age of Suburbia

With Hometown, Szabo turns his focus on the landscape itself, making the streets, homes, yards, cars, and shops the stars of the story. Here, Szabo brings together photographs made between 1973 and 1980 in Long Island, northern Ohio, Martha’s Vineyard, and elsewhere that capture the “idyllic dream of suburbia”, a realm far away from the bustle and grind of the workweek. 

Szabo’s lyrical photographs transport us back to a simpler time, a world where kids play baseball in fields of fresh green grass under clear blue skies while the paperboy cruises by on a bicycle, a fat stack of papers under his arm, earning his keep by keeping the people informed. Cars of all sorts are parked out front while backyards are filled with laundry hanging from the line, the occasional boat hoisted on land in between seasons. 

Hometown © Joseph Szabo, Courtesy of Damiani

The nostalgia is palpable, tender, and sweet, like the scent of apple pie gently wafting through the kitchen window as it cools on the sill. Despite Thomas Wolfe’s warning, “You can’t go home again,” looking at Szabo’s photographs, you might wish to believe that this America still exists — if it ever existed at all. Perhaps that is the beauty of these photographs: they preserve hope and faith that the future may be as golden as the warmth of memory. 

Cover: Hometown © Joseph Szabo, Courtesy of Damiani

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

Joseph Szabo: Hometown
Published by Damiani

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