Jason Nocito

For Viewfinder


Jason grew up on Long Island. He said he walked home from school most days staring down at the sidewalk. There was a year when his mother collected/sold birds from the house. Parents divorced. His dad married a few more times. Brothers and sisters branch out. I’m never sure how many there are—at least four and maybe as many as nine.

Dropped out of photo school just shy of a few credits and works in a darkroom making contact sheets in the old photo-district of mid-‘90s New York. Starts shooting for magazines by 2000.

2005-07, he’s spending lots of time in Vancouver with his girlfriend Meghan (later, his wife). He made a blog called The Ego Has Landed—pictures of objects, patterns, Meghan, and friends, that feel like Jason: dark and funny, restless and generous. He figured out a language for himself here.

Simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating—and obsessive. Two books came from this era: Loads (Aperture, 2008) and I Heart Transylvania (Dashwood Books, 2011)—the latter, a love story.

2014 til now, there are three books of 8x10 large-format photos of New York puddles called PUD (Dashwood Books, 2014-16). There's a dozen small books he made in one year, a studio full of collages and sculptures, and an endless run of commercial and editorial work. Jason finished those college credits, and he and Meghan had a baby girl.

Not that quantity is the goal, but he’s taken more photos than anyone I know—always, seemingly, without much fear.

Michael Schmelling

Photos courtesy of Jason Nocito

By Mo Mfinanga

August 16, 2019

Estimated 10 minute read

Mo: Something I'd like to discuss is the element of time in photography.

Jason: Time is everything. Every main factor in photography is time, light, and the mechanics of it. 

Mo: How would you classify the current phase of photography we’re in?

Jason: To me, photography was or is film-based. We're not really making photography anymore. It's imagery. We're making digital images mostly, or as I like to say DIM content. There’s a big trend going on. People shoot film, and I love film cameras, but I also love digital. I love the instant image and how it's teaching people to make pictures in new ways and at massive quantities. The most important “camera” in the world is possibly the iPhone, but to me, the iPhone is not a camera, it’s a computer rendering what it thinks it sees.

Jason: For someone like Zoe Leonard, the pictures aren't really the thing but they're part of it. The way she uses the black bars of the frame is such a major statement in such a simple way. It encloses the image and renders it dead.You don't have that with digital. There's no frame. I mean, there is, but you can do whatever you want to it. The borders are infinite.

Jason: Digital image making is all content. Again, DIM content. Because on Instagram that's what it is. I don't know where it's headed and maybe it doesn't matter... I think the thing that Instagram has created is this flood of imagery that is made in a certain way and I find it fascinating. Everything needs to fit in this thing. It’s changed the way we frame things. Everything is meant to be liked and be appropriate and not really challenge the viewer. Looking at things that are the size of your palm—it kinda makes sense. Making an image with layers in the composition is a much harder read in a small space.

Mo: Let's use a cover shoot for example. You're really aware of the copy and crop. Instagram has rewired some of us to push our work out in that same way. We're all shooting “covers” for Instagram.


Mo: What has Instagram taught you while working within it's parameters?

Jason: I can kind of get obsessed about what it's doing. The camera tends to dictate a lot of how you take a picture and to me, now Instagram also dictates the type of pictures you show.

Jason: I think the thing that I always think about is something this teacher, Charlie Harbut, told me. He said, "Style and fashion—interchangeable. But being able to make a picture within a frame really good—you can't fuck with that." I think that's something I've always thought about and I know it's corny. And it doesn't mean it's better. Photography has become more vibey. It's not really how to make a picture; it's vibezzzz. A lot of it is who you are and what you're latching onto. I was really resistant to posting work stuff but now I don't care. If it is another version of my website—a safer, cleaner version—then fine. I have my personal practice that I like to keep separate from my work practice. On Instagram it's cool to put those things together, but for the main part, mentally, I like to keep it separate. 


Jason: The editorial world is definitely in a weird place right now. I saw the arc of that, being as interested as anyone in magazines and I love the opportunities sometimes I'm given. I started to do a lot of editorial with places like The FADER, and after Phil Bicker it became a different thing. And that's not because Phil left. It's just that when Phil was working there it was 2005 to 2010. And in that arc, the rise of digital and came heavily and social media was at the tail end. The way celebrities treated you was different. So now when you get put up for a cover it has to be approved through all these layers of people. 

Jason: When I first started it was like, Go on tour with this band for two weeks, or, Go to Lil Wayne's house, show up, and hang out there. You'd walk into his apartment and he's literally in his pajamas. It was so different. But now, and I had a great time shooting this, but Ariana Grande had to send her security there the night before to make sure everything was safe. And there's 40 people behind you while you're shooting. I'm used to this type of set from because it mimics commercial work but it creates a different dynamic between talent and photographer. The intimacy has changed. It's not better or worse. It's just different.


Ariana Grande for The FADER, 2018


Jason: After making 12 books, I realized that I gotta make something else so I started making stuff in my studio. This is all a work in progress, but they're all photographs that I print on this vinyl and they're all sown. I was trying to figure out how I could work outside of a book and a frame. The PUD pictures will be made until I die, though. Taking those types of pics are like meditation for me because I'll get up at 5 or 6 a.m. and walk around with a 8x10 camera for a few hours. Over the summer I'll do that for a solid month.

Jason: But I don't know if those puddle pictures I made last year are better than the ones I made three years ago, however, photography is a certain rhythm. It's a really physical process, even if I'm taking pictures that I'm going to cut up and make into these surface-y things.

Mo: I really fuck with that one. [points to a piece]

Jason: Thanks. You know, I can't tell so I'm always like, Is this good? To me, the cooler thing is how I can use them as screens and as an installation and have layered pieces together. But yeah, we're walking on this stuff right now. [both laughing] Books are awesome. It's an amazing way to use photography, but it's also saturated.


Jason Nocito at his studio in Lower Manhattan

Mo Mfinanga, 2019
It’s more what situation excites me. What situation can the subject allow?
— Jason Nocito

Jason: I think activity is the best thing—staying active and making things even when you don't want to.

Mo: It will always move you forward.

Jason: I don't know if it will move you forward, but it will always give an opportunity for something to happen. Moving forward... I’m not sure about that... I don't know if my pictures now are better than they were 10 years ago. But I know staying active has given me the time and space for things to happen.




Mo: How do you feel about your work now?

Jason: Mostly not good but that's my general feeling about my own work. It can be a driving force at times, but on some level you don't want to worry about that too much. That's the place that I've gotten more to. I can definitely make pictures in a lot of different ways because of my experience. 

Mo: Were there periods in your life where you knew that you were getting better?

Jason: Those were the periods in my life where I was committing more.

Mo: What got you commit more?

Jason: Resentments, [both laughing] and being driven a certain way. I feel like a driven type of person but also a little resent-y type, self admittedly. But also, self admittedly, I'm looking at those things and trying to not base everything out of that.

Mo: How do you balance that?

Jason: By being aware. Give space for people. Being judgmental and arrogant is really bad and I can get caught in a hate loop as easily as anyone.

Mo: In one owns work?

Jason: In one owns self! I can genuinely say that for myself and the way that I view my own work, sometimes I can think it's all terrible. I made 12 books and there's a part of me that feels like that was a total bust. What did I do that for? But there's another part of me where you have to believe in the process. A friend of mine always says that it's not about this or that. It's about this and that.

Mo: It's not linear. It's all a spectrum.

Jason: Yeah! You want to have the full spectrum of life experiences. I think it's better that I made 12 books than not. I thought that I would do that and this will happen but it's not the case. Something happened—something changed—but not what I thought and nothing that I predicted. I started making that stuff in the studio and that was an effect of the other thing but that's not where I thought it was going to take me. I just always had this other thing that I thought was going to happen.


André 3000 for GQ Style, 2017


Mo: What subjects excite you?

Jason: It's more what situation excites me. What situation can the subject allow? Everybody can shoot a picture of a celebrity or musician in a way that they allow them to, but is the celebrity going to allow you to do what you do? It's kind of like what we've spoken about before and I think that's the harder equation. For the Ariana Grande shoot we tricked it into the scene. We created all these scenarios and something fell but that doesn't always happen. Everyone is thinking about who they are, and that's fine, I get it. Everybody's a brand!

Mo: Do people force you to think about yourself as a brand?

Jason: I hope not. Only the bRands I wear.

Mo: Is patience a contributing factor to that?

Jason: Yeah, the long game, right? It's all about the long game. But what's the end goal? I don't know! [laughing] I just want to make some stuff and feel as good as I can while doing it.

I think we all get caught up in what we think we should be doing rather than what we’re actually doing.
— Jason Nocito

Mo: Did having a kid make you think about the long game?

Jason: Kind of but it's not that cut and dry. It's not like, Ah, I have a kid so I have to think about this. I've always been working towards having a decent life and take care of myself and my family. I had nobody to help me so I've done this in my own zone. I don't know if the kid makes me feel like I need to get things more together now. It might. But it's not conscious. I have to be the best version of myself, whatever that is, on any given day. I have to show up for my family, for myself, and for the people I work for.

Mo: How do you show up for yourself?

Jason: By going out and doing stuff. Maybe that's walking around taking photos or going to the studio to lay down work. But sometimes it's about doing nothing. Before, I used to think that I need to be doing something all the time. I needed to make stuff! 



PUD is a series of sixteen photographs of New York City street debris and puddles interspersed with images from a road trip across the US all shot on an 8x10 camera.

Learn more here


Mo: I don’t know if it's good or bad, but I've been trying to have certain things not directly interfere with my practice. Do you do the same for photography?

Jason: I would like to say that, but first and foremost I make pictures. Whether I'm an artist, photographer, or whatever; it's all still picture based. I'm not good at multitasking. I like to take pictures and play with imagery.

Mo: Is that injected in the purpose of your work?

Jason: Yes, just for today. I’m a photographer who suffers from photo ADD so that could change at any given time. It’s about keeping my heart in it, though. I don't know if it's a purpose but I think we all get caught up in what we think we should be doing rather than what we're actually doing. I did that for a long time and came to the realization that I should just be taking the pictures that I'm taking, and doing the things that are right there in front of me. Whenever I do that I'm happier with the work I'm making.


Jason: I don't know what that is exactly but I've made different types of stuff—personal, editorial, commercial—and I'm really fucking lucky that I can keep it going.


Further Reading

  • Andre Wagner
  • “I don't force myself to understand photographs when I'm making them.”