Photographer Profile - Stephanie Noritz: "The camaraderie of the players is what drew me"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday August 4, 2015

The varsity football team of Automotive High School in Brooklyn will soon be starting training for its 2015 season.

As in the past, the team will not be practicing on an actual football field, because the school doesn’t have one. Instead, players will be drilling and scrimmaging in McCarren Park, not far from photographer Stephanie Noritz’s apartment.

Two years ago, Noritz, who moved to New York from Toronto in 2007, noticed the Automotive High team working out and wondered why they were in the park instead of on a regular field. The sights and sounds of the athletes going through their drills also intrigued her.

“It was the combination of being curious about why they were in there and just being interested in the scene—the physicality of the practice and the camaraderie of the players—that drew me,” she says. “So I walked over and introduced myself to the coach and asked if it would be okay to take some photographs.”

He said yes, and Noritz began what would become a consuming personal project that stretched over two seasons, expanding into a body of work that speaks about both the corporeal and spiritual nature of sports, the dirt and the dreams.

And this year Noritz will be back again.

“I want to take it further. I want to get into the homes of these kids and shoot outside of the field,” she says.

Moments of Vulnerability

As its name suggests, Automotive High School is a technical and vocational school that offers a program through which students can be certified as mechanics. “The first thing students see after passing through metal detectors at the main entrance is not some bright, chipper mural about school pride or trophy case trumpeting academic or athletic achievements,” noted the New York Times  in a 2007 article about the school. “Rather, it is a display model of a Toyota Previa LE supercharged engine.”  

The school’s performance has been the subject of scrutiny—the New York Post  reported in March that Automotive High had falling attendance and a four-year graduation rate of 49 percent.

The school’s football team doesn’t have a stellar record, either: It won two games and lost eight in 2013 and had an identical record in 2014. “They’re known as underdogs,” Noritz says. The Automotive High players also suffer the indignity of having to play their home games on the field of a rival high school a mile away.

And yet, notes Noritz, they come come to practice with lofty aspirations. “As I was photographing,” she says, “I asked a lot of them what they wanted to do after they graduated, and many talked about their dream of continuing to play football, and how they want to go to the NFL.”

Her images—portraits shot on film with a Hasselblad and documentary-style photos shot with a DSLR—are respectful but poignant reflections on those dreams. The series, notes art website It’s Nice That, is “concerned with moments of stillness instead of action, revealing a sensitivity in players usually renowned for their toughness.”

“I’m interested in the masculinity, in this moment in these boys’  lives as they’re growing from men to adults — that in-between stage, the moments of vulnerability and the story of who they are,” Nortiz says of the work.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the photographs is their genuine sense of intimacy and the sensuality of the details Nortiz captures.

“The pictures make me feel like I am right there with the team,” says Myles McCutcheon, photo director of Toronto-based Sportsnet magazine, who has known Nortiz since her days as a photo student at Ryerson University and more recently has published her work. “I like the idea that she has taken a longer-term approach to the subject, rather than just spending a day or two on it, which is what most editorial assignments are like these days.”

A Period of Transition

Noritz, who is 31, says it’s easy for her to speak to kids. The boys on the Automotive High football team were just typical boys, she says.

“Sometimes they would be putting up a front—they’d want to show off. And other times they were so focused in practice, listening to what the coach was saying and doing their drills, that it was like I wasn’t there,” she says.

Young people figure into much of her work, both personal projects and in her assignments for magazines like Dazed & Confused and Monocle. She’s photographed Little Leaguers in Brooklyn, skateboarders in Manhattan, and started a separate project on the Automotive High School baseball team. She recently completed a commercial assignment for Samsung, creating a campaign for an in-house publication focused on youth lifestyle.

“I don’t know what it is—I just get along well with kids,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I grew up with a younger sister and cousins, we have a big family. I just feel comfortable with them, and they feel comfortable with me.”

Noritz was born in Toronto, but grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where her family moved when she was in the third grade. As a high school student, she was interested in art; then, she says, “I took a chance on photography.” She ended up returning to Canada to study in Ryerson’s four-year BA photography program.

“In my third year there I got really interested in portraiture, and I started a project called “Young Girls,” documenting my younger cousins, who were 15 at the time,” she says.

Her younger sister was also a muse. “Being at college, I missed out watching her grow up, so whenever I would go to Ohio to visit, I would photograph her and her friends,” says Noritz. The result was a series called  “Southview,” named after the high school her sister attended in Toledo.

“I was just interested in this transition and the period of adolescence,” Noritz says. “There’s so much going on there—the way kids influence each other, the way they look to one another for validation and reassurance.”

The same themes are on full view in her pictures of the Automotive High football team. But Noritz says that viewing isn’t enough.

“When I looked back at my photographs, I felt that so much of what I experienced of the scenes wasn’t coming through,” she says. To heighten the descriptive quality of the work, she used audio recorders—at first her iPhone, then a more expensive mic—to record the sounds of the practices. You can listen to the audio track  at her website, and hear the sounds of young men on the verge.


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