A William Rittase Sports Gallery

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
A typical William Rittase outdoor shot, with his signature dramatic clouds. (Please click all images to enlarge.)

Visitors to the lower level of Williston Northampton’s Sabina Cain Family Athletic Center may already be familiar with some of these photographs.  William Rittase (1894-1968) was an American photographer based in Philadelphia.   His work is now prized by collectors.  Rittase frequently specialized in railroad and industrial subjects, but on several occasions in the 1930s and ’40s, he was hired by both Williston Academy and Northampton School for Girls to produce catalog photography, thereby giving a distinctive look to the schools’ marketing materials of the time.

Rittase’s work is often characterized by dramatic lighting and high contrast between light and shadow.   Billowing clouds are one of his signatures.  Most of the Archives’ Rittase photographs survive as gallery prints in which the image measures 13.75″ x 10.”

But Rittase was not above a measure of artistic chicanery.  Former Williston photography teacher Bob Couch ’50 has observed that the same clouds appear in multiple photographs.  And consider the preceding photograph — by any standard, a brilliant action shot.  But think about the vantage point.  To get this angle, Rittase would have had to to have been standing on a ladder in the infield.And no, Rittase wasn’t using a telephoto lens.  In fact, he favored a large-format camera, that used 4 x 5″ film or larger, had a fixed lens, and weighed many pounds.  So the wonderful photo above was, in fact, staged, even choreographed.  The photographer is apparently sitting on the ground just a few feet from the blockers’ knees.

Speaking of choreography: a copy of this photograph hung for years in the Williston Northampton Dance Studio, intended to inspire young choreographers to seek ideas for movement in unusual places.

So . . . a great action shot?  Absolutely!  And it’s a rare image of a successful squeeze play at the plate.  But Rittase would have had to stand only a few yards from home plate to get it, unless, of course, he was simultaneously playing shortstop and carrying the camera.

One would be hard put to explain what is happening here.  But in 1938, when this was taken, Williston was among a tiny number of schools that had an indoor pool at all.  Competitive swimming wouldn’t arrive for another decade.  So it’s a great “see-what-Williston’s-got” catalog shot, enhanced by Rittase’s use of the light streaming through the windows on the right.

Another shot in which the photographer seems more interested in dramatic lighting than in the game.  The light source is an artificial flood on the squash court floor; Rittase would have been shooting from the spectator’s window above the court.

Athletic culture at Northampton School for Girls was far less intense than at Williston Academy, but Rittase took some interesting photos there, as well.

In fact, while there were teams, notably field hockey and basketball, at Northampton School for Girls, there was a greater emphasis on physical education.    70 years after the fact, it is challenging to interpret what is going on here.  Great Rittase-y clouds, though!

This is notable as the only known photograph of the onetime ski jump on the hill behind the Main Street (Junior School) campus, next to Swan Cottage.

To take hockey photos, Rittase must have rounded up anyone he could find who had a pair of skates handy.  Careful observers will note that the goalie is wearing street clothes and a necktie.

A few more “action” shots.  The juxtaposition of the javelin and parallel cloud is particularly good.

In what may well have been a Golden Age of private schools, a little nostalgia was certainly part of any marketing effort.  Boys playing in late afternoon light, or golfing friends returning to Ford Hall seem to evoke the Old School of A Separate Peace and similar literature.

2 thoughts on “A William Rittase Sports Gallery”

  1. These are a remarkable set of photographs. Captures the spontaneity of a small form rangefinder, probably a Leica shooting roll after roll of fine grain film. The processing and prints are Ansel Adams’ 10 shades of gray. We are lucky to have them in the archive.

    I do remember that lawn at the Northampton School!

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