Body of Work (Part II)

[the citation continues…]

Shortly after the publication of The Eastern Shore, Szabo embarked on yet another career. He was invited to join the teaching staff at the Corcoran School of Art. It is here at the Corcoran that Steve has had his greatest influence upon young Washington artists. An inspiration to his students and a respected member of the Corcoran faculty, Steve has used his photographic talents wisely and well as teacher, mentor and artist in residence. Along with his teaching responsibilities, Steve has continued with his career in photography. His photographs in Washington, France, and New England once again reveal and reaffirm his keen eye of social nuance and appreciation of the camera’s formal values.

Hungary 1

These two images were taken in Hungary, but are representative of Steve's regional portfolio mentioned in the citation. In particular, this series highlights his range of visual interests - from urban accretion to marital bliss.

These two images were taken in Hungary, but are representative of Steve’s regional portfolios mentioned in the citation. In particular, this series highlights his range of visual interests – from urban accretion to marital bliss.

In 1992 Steve Szabo learned that he had contracted multiple sclerosis. Before his illness caused a halt to the work, he was involved in documenting worn cowboy boots upended on fence posts spread across the Great Plains in Nebraska. True to himself and to his art, these beautifully crafted and thoughtful works again depict the effect the land has upon its inhabitants. Here, again, Szabo’s notes and anecdotes serve as a poignant corollary to the body of work. It is photography which is at once document, history and art.

A page from the notebook in which Steve - uncharacteristically - laid out the 400+ photographs of boots with meticulous notation. These made up the series "Icons of the Great Plains," which were exhibited at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery in the spring of 1991.

A page from the notebook in which Steve – uncharacteristically – laid out the 400+ photographs of boots with meticulous notation. These made up the series “Icons of the Great Plains,” which were exhibited at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery in the spring of 1991.

 Steve has continued to photograph, courageously persevering despite the limitations imposed upon him by his disease. He has begun an extensive portrait series in color, most recently adding the portraits of his many visitors…friends, admirers, well wishers…to his home in Northwest Washington.

Pictured are Bruce and Julia Ewan. Julia was a student of Steve's and one of his most attentive visitors during his illness. Her then-husband Bruce is a blues musician.

Pictured are Bruce and Julia Ewan. Julia was a student of Steve’s and one of his most attentive visitors during his illness. Her then-husband Bruce is a blues musician.

It is an honor and a privilege to honor Steve Szabo for his outstanding contributions to photography and for his dedication and commitment to the Corcoran School of Art.


Although I hate to end this post on a sad note, I’d like to wrap up by recounting a story Kathy tells about Steve’s time in Nebraska. As she tells it, while he was photographing the “Icons of the Great Plains” series he went to a liquor store one night to buy a bottle of something. The store owner said something along the lines of “I’ve think you’ve had enough already.” While no one who knew Steve would find it surprising that he might have been having a night of hard drinking, in this case the store owner was mistaken and Steve was sober. In fact, whatever incoordination or clumsiness the owner noticed was in fact the first sign of Steve’s illness. The following year, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

I choose this anecdote in hopes that placing it here, in the middle of my ongoing narrative, underscores the triumphs of Steve’s life rather than its tragic end. As the citation notes, and as you can see above, not even confinement to a hospital bed could stop his creative mind. His friends saw to it that his artistic life continued unabated. Whether posing as models or volunteering to develop his film and print his pictures (which he had previously always done himself) they made sure that Steve the photographer lived on as long as his energy could sustain his artwork.

Steve takes a photograph from the hospital bed in which he spent his last years. The bed was set up in the sunroom of Kathleen Ewing's house.

Steve takes a photograph from the hospital bed in which he spent his last years. The bed was set up in the sunroom of Kathleen Ewing’s house.

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Body of Work (part I)

First off, my apologies for missing my intended weekly post last Friday. My fellow academics out there will no doubt understand when I say that it’s “that time of semester” and in light of the busy time of year, I’ve decided to post every other week from now until things calm down.

Also, given that the past two weeks have been a bit hectic, I’m trying a somewhat different approach for this post. Since finishing my previous writing on everything I know about Steve’s childhood, the obvious question has been where to go next. Should I try to follow him during to his brief time at Penn State? I have been unable to turn up any more records of that time in Steve’s own belongings, and unfortunately the time and resources that would be required to dig deeper through the school’s records and oral interviews elude me at the moment. I do hope to go back to this period in the future though.

When last we left Steve, it was 1959 and he was working at Tullytown Sheet Metal Co. in Bucks County, PA. Indeed, in the records available to me and through interviewing Kathy, this is the last place we see him definitively until the late 1960s. As far as I know, he spent some time at an art school in California (probably Los Angeles Art Center College of Design) during this foggy period, but I have little other information with which to illuminate the decade. All I can say for sure right now is that by 1967 he was working as a photojournalist for the Washington Post. The years in between are another period that deserves deeper research at a later time.

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Torch

Before diving into Steve’s adulthood, I’d like to add an addendum to my previous post about his young life. A windfall has occurred that I feel would be too enticing to pass up, even if it delays our investigation just a bit. Namely, I have acquired a copy of Steve’s high school yearbook. I suspect that more than a few family archivists out there will be familiar with my intense excitement upon typing the words “Delhaas yearbook” into Google and discovering that the sole result from Ebay was a copy from 1958, the year Steve graduated.

torch

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“I Call it My Life Because it Looks Like it Is” (Part II)

In the fall of 1986, Steve had a show at Kathy’s gallery. Writing in the Washington Post, the critic Paul Richard gave it a favorable review, noting: “Were it not for its courtliness, his show might fall to pieces. But its elegance conquers its confusions.” The show included a wide variety of photographs from still lifes to Chincoteague landscapes and Hungarian street scenes. Richard was particularly fascinated with the still lifes, whose density he compared to Jackson Pollock paintings. Richard wrote: “Like that abstract painter, Szabo is concerned with all-at-onceness, with maintenance of the field. So ordered is the whole that one tends to overlook the chaos of the parts.”

One of Steve's meditative images from "The Eastern Shore" portfolio.

One of Steve’s meditative images from “The Eastern Shore” portfolio.

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“I Call it My Life Because it Looks Like it Is” (Part I)

porch

As a historian (in training), I have an appetite for data, context, and intrigue. While any box of memorabilia provides this, the craving for hard dates is harder to satisfy. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone stamped everything they wrote, thought, or said with a reliable month, date, and year? I suppose one of the dubious advantages of social media is just this traceability – but of course, Steve never had a Facebook account.

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“Photographs Don’t Lie:” The Beginning of a Journey

On New Years Day 2015, my mom and I drove into DC to help a friend clean some things out of her house. Kathleen Ewing lives in a corner row house on Ordway Street, somewhere between Tenleytown and Cleveland Park. Kathy took us up to a second floor sunroom that had recently been filled with boxes from her attic (she’s getting ready to put her house on the market).

Because she’s lived there since the 70s, there’s a certain archaeological aspect to moving any quantity of things from the attic: strata have accumulated that give at least the illusion of order to the decades. Renegade squirrels have done their best to disrupt this order. A malignant-looking hybrid of mold, dust, and pet hair has colonized anything that wasn’t protected — of course, nothing was, because nothing was ever meant to stay up there that long. Memory, as always, is less than perfectly helpful in recalling where all this stuff actually came from.

A brief selection: a 1924 silver “Peace” dollar with the initials “SS” scratched into its surface. A remarkably well-preserved telegraph key. A box of wooden model airplane propellers. More than the usual amount of mid- to late-century photographic paraphernalia. And an eight-by-eight foot hand-painted mural on yellow canvas depicting a scantily clad woman in fierce combat with a giant cobra. In foot-high letters reminiscent of pulp novels is the title: True Life Adventures by Steve Szabo.

ScanSteve mural

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