The Wholeness of Disparate Parts: a conversation with Jason Nocito

The Wholeness of Disparate Parts: a conversation with Jason Nocito

Life being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection, the latter, in search of the hard latent value with which alone it is concerned, sniffs round the mass as instinctively and unerringly as a dog suspicious of some buried bone. The difference here, however, is that, while the dog desires his bone but to destroy it, the artist finds in his tiny nugget, washed free of awkward accretions and hammered into a sacred hardness, the very stuff for a clear affirmation, the happiest chance for the indestructible.“* — Henry James

The world as it appears in the work of photographer Jason Nocito is unruly, discoloured, full of visceral distempers, and yet it is also unfailingly rife with beauty and incipient strangeness. Jason’s photographs lead us “deep into the disorder and furtive sweetness of the world,”** with unswerving frankness and lurid spontaneity. His photographs work in a visual form that is deeply attuned to the evanescent nature of life’s vibrancy, and to its indivisible contradictions. In his most affecting and complex pictures life is animated and given dimension by the interactions of light and colour, so that each texture and incidental object acquires a choral voice within frames that attain cacophony without simplifying chaos.

Jason’s photographs flow from a sensitivity toward “the inveterate minuteness” of inspiration, from an attentiveness to what Henry James called “the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo.” They are definitively pictures of and from the world, one comprised of disjuncture and efflorescence — a whole world of disparateness in which voluble conflicts are the equal of irresistible attractions. They are diaristic, instinctual, self-deprecating and playful images, and in them the urge to capture and to frame is continually swarmed over by the virulence of life in a constant process of replication.

In their own vivid and altered way, Jason’s photographs contribute to a lineage of art photography made out of a democratic fascination with daily life. We might consider such photography along the outlines of opposing extremes, charting a spectrum from Eggleston’s privileged circumspection to Goldin’s fearlessness in the face of real fears. Jason’s photographs confront the complexities of dissolution and obsession as twinned extremes, marking either immersion into the mess of life, or separateness from its unmanageable intensities. His pictures do this with a vulnerability to the changeable nature of individual instincts — one that affords him few protections from the paradoxes of human emotion. In this sense, Jason’s work rejects classical standards of clarity or consistency, in favour of a fullness that is rife with unpredictable volatility, so that headstones seem charmed and boisterous, while puddles become portals that lead into inarticulate dimensions.

In what follows, Jason discusses his work through a series of his books beginning with Loads (2009) and ending with his latest PUD II (2014).

The Great Leap Sideways (TGLS): Before we get on to this series of PUD books, I’m keen to start out asking you about your love of mess and irreverence, and the way that flows from an eagerness in your pictures to find art in the autobiography of your daily life. I get the sense that you’re always making photographs, and that you’re drawn to a beauty that at least on classical terms is born out of imperfection?

Jason Nocito (JS): I guess that my photographs and emotional state are in unison, as I feel like I am always a total irreverent mess emotionally…! But no, I think that it’s a fair observation. I am attracted to the things that I feel connect deeply to my own personal psychology. I came from a pretty difficult background that I am still sifting through and dealing with, and I have always found comfort in the offness of a subject, while at the same time I have always tried to find something right (for me) about it.

I feel that the PUD series is my first conscious attempt at making something beautiful in a classical sense (all images in the first one were made with an 8×10 camera, and most of the images in the second one…) Whereas by contrast in my first book Loads, I felt more like I was trying to a create poetry in between images, and the work was more about creating a ton of images and then seeing how they worked off each other.

I Heart Transylvania falls in the middle of both ideas emotionally and visually. There is an attempt at beauty, at times, but nothing was even very conscious. I had spent over four years travelling to and from Vancouver, BC, and it was a very weird but amazing time in my life… Being in Vancouver gave me freedom from working in NYC, and that was the first time in my life I had ever felt like that. So I got into this rhythm of working commercially when I was in the States, and in Vancouver I would shut off and play!

I think that this is where it became apparent to me that making photographs on a daily basis was the only way I was gonna feel better and grow. There is only so much time in a day/life, and while I had to travel for work and for my relationship, I needed to figure out a way to make pictures for myself. Vancouver was an amazing backdrop for that, and that time and space taught me a certain discipline as an artist, as well as allowing me the time to have time to shut off and space to play.

But also keep in mind none of these books came out of a specific idea. The more I think about it, they were all born out of the environment that surrounded me, which I think addresses the autobiographical aspect of my work.

TGLS: It’s funny because in many ways I think of Loads and I Heart Transylvania as both being Instagram books before the creation of Instagram itself. There’s a restless and utterly democratic energy to the fascinations and contradictions of the pictures that seems quintessentially contemporary, even though they pre-dated the mass adoption through smartphones, or the widespread adoption of diaristic picture-making. And I think one key way in which that happens is through precisely the absence of specific ideas…

Are you an Eggleston fan in that democratic sense of picture-making? I tend to think Jason Fulford is a great contemporary iteration of that ostensibly purpose-less way of photographing what Eggleston calls “life today”?

Jason Nocito: It’s really funny that you say that. I totally agree on some ESP level now that Instagram has taken over the vernacular image! Loads defintely has a more clear line connected to this idea, because it was based off of this blog, and I Heart was made at the same time, and as I mentioned earlier both books were never meant as “projects” but more as an extension of my life.

I went to photography school in 1991, and I didn’t know anything about photographers and photobooks, but I was really fortunate to land a job my first semester with a photographer who had a studio above the Strand bookstore, and in his studio he had a huge book collection covering most genres of photography (documentary  fashion art). Every weekend when I was done cleaning the studio, he said I could spend as much time as I liked looking at books. I would look at everything democratically, and I loved it all except this one book The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston.

I remember being so confused and annoyed the first time I looked at it. I put the book back on the shelf and was like ‘ugh that was dumb, what is that ……?!’ At the time it made no sense to me in the context of the photography books surrounding it, like Irving Penn and Robert Frank, Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe. But the following week, I remember I had thought about this one picture of a green bathroom wall, and every week thereafter for the next few years I would pull that book down, and stare at the pictures in Democratic Forest to try and make sense of them. So I guess in a weird way my adverse feelings (at first) toward Eggleston were how I began to understand what I enjoyed about my own photography.

TGLS: When you sent me your books, your little handwritten note read “here is my life.” It made me think of how Eggleston is a great proponent of stubbornness or a helpless fascination with staring, which in many ways shapes the common thread between your early bodies of work, because they flow so seamlessly from everyday life. Are you a fan of Stranded in Canton? It seems to resonate with I Heart Transylvania in a number of ways?

Jason Nocito: Wow that’s really great, I’ve never seen it! Are you a fan of Michel Auders’s films? There is a similar sensibility in Stranded, and I love it!

TGLS: I don’t know Michel Auders’s work unfortunately, and it seems the few online clips on his website are in formats I don’t have plug-ins for, which is classically Canton in its own way… I think in Loads and I Heart there’s a sense of images proliferating, which certainly comes from the working life you’ve described, but also seems about distraction and the comforts of the sofa, and magazines being strewn everywhere…?

Jason Nocito: Its interesting to me that you say that, because Loads was put out three years before I Heart Transylvania, and now since I have some distance from the book(s) it seems to me like Loads could be looked at as sort of sketchbook, like I wasn’t really sure what i was saying but I was able to PLAY IN THE SAND… In a way I was working out how to make and edit pictures, and in I Heart that voice became more autobiographical, and solidified something more concrete.

TGLSPUD seems something of a departure though (the first one more so than the second), in that’s it’s really epic in a microcosmic kind of “see the world in a grain of sand” sort of way? It seems overtly thematic, where the earlier books weren’t, so could you talk about how it came into being?

Jason Nocito: PUD came about over a semi-long period of time. The idea probably first came up in 2009, when a friend was over and I was showing him pictures of things and junk, and he brought up Ed Ruscha’s 10 swimming pools and a broken bottle book, and how it would be cool somehow to remake the book but with puddles in Chinatown, NY. At the time I was living on Forsyth and Grand, and if you have ever spent any time in the area, in the summer the streets get ripe to say the least…

Around the same time my girlfriend (and future wife) was getting ready to move to New York. So after spending four years going back and forth to Vancouver, I started to think about how I was gonna make my own work in the city. At the same time, I started to think about going back to grad school (specifically Yale, because I had always been a fan of photographers that studied there, as well as street photographers like Winogrand and Papageorge). It took a few years to get it together with Meghan’s move and work being busy in 2010, and I had  to finish two classes to get my BFA, which I did in 2009 – 2010 (I took a Semiotics class in Fall 2009, and a Poetry & Beauty class in Summer 2010).

The first time I applied I became super-obsessed with the application process in late 2010. By the end of 2010 I was pretty burnt out on working commercially, and I think it had been a long time coming after flying back and forth from Vancouver for four consecutive years, as well as flying all over the place for work for a year in 2010, which kind of broke me in half… I made new work in between working on jobs any chance that I could. I was pretty obsessed with getting into Yale and out of my current life. I remember probably making over 500 pdfs of the twenty picture combination (which I eventually made into a semi-edited 500 page book of the pdfs on Lulu Book). There were 500 pages of twenty more or less similar image combinations, where occasionally different images would come in, and towards the end the images changed more and more. I wish i still had a copy… I went to a bunch of crits to see what the vibe was, and I remember that in one crit they were having a conversation about camera formats and lenses, and how what you choose to use affects your approach. It was a strange conversation to me at the time, but I think that what they were saying really stuck with me.

I applied the first time, got my interview and didn’t get in, but was determined to try to apply again, and got obsessed with making work for the application during the summer of 2011. I was making a lot of pictures in my neighborhood around Chinatown, but nothing that I was all that excited by. Eventually I decided to rent an 8×10 camera and to change my whole approach to this sort of “street” photography I was attempting. I was also reading about Atget and his working process, which I think had a big influence on PUD.

The idea of puddles and looking down had been in my head for a long time, but I didn’t have the time to give myself the space to approach working on non-commercial work in the way you would work on a job. I think that forcing myself to work on the application process so intensely gave me that structure, so I made some puddle pics that summer but none that were good. I kept on playing with the camera and trying to make more, and applied again in 2012. By the time I had my second interview in March, I had made one or two puddle pictures that I felt good about, and I included them in the application. Going to Yale never worked out, but I think the application process really helped me figure out some things, as well as giving me that space to work outside of the commercial world that I’m involved in.

TGLS: It’s funny because I often find memorable art begins from the most innocuous pretexts, like Mark Ruwedel photographing every place in the California desert with the name Hell in the title, or Hans-Peter Feldmann making a book of portraits of a human being of every age from 1 to 100 in 100 Jahre, or Laurie Anderson photographing every man who sexually harassed her on the street in Fully Automated Nikon… Starting small can take you on an epic journey, and in PUD 1 & 2 there’s a really sense of unrestricted freedom, but also a suggestion of puddles as portals to altered states within banal everyday spaces?

Jason Nocito: DAMMIT! You’re like a photographer’s therapist!!! It’s like I have set up these parameters to work within (maybe a certain set of rules)… I’ve talked about this in therapy a lot, and it’s as though I’ve built a sandbox that I can toy with, so that whatever happens in there good or bad doesn’t mean anything. Its the process, and the ability to play that gives me a sense of freedom to make the work.

TGLS: I think that sense of freedom is really all right there in the work itself, which is rare and also challenging in what the work frames. There is something very determinedly child-like (as opposed to childish) in the way your work insists on reaching for everything the lens seems to see (from sex to disaster to intoxication to boredom to decay to random anachronism to city life). Does photographing preserve your connection to the spirit of your own youth?

Jason Nocito: In some way maybe I can connect this idea to feelings I had learned to deal with as a child. I had a darker childhood than some, and to me photography sort of came into my life and maybe saved me from some other type of life I could have led. It probably sounds corny, but photography helped me deal with my feelings, just not necessarily in a conscious manner. I believe I used/use photography more as a tool to hide behind, and to connect to the world, because as a child I felt I had very little connection and was very emotionally isolated from most things.

I used to have this very long walk to school, because our apartment was before the cut-off line for buses, and I remember looking so intensely at things as I walked to school. I really felt this sense of wonder, and it totally preoccupied my boredom and disdain for that long daily walk. That’s one side of maybe where my childlike sense comes from, but also I think the constant curiosity and tendency to search was sort of a learned OCD behaviour that I developed while dealing with feelings of abandonment and neglect from a very young age.

My mother was an extremely bad alcoholic, and growing up as a child I spent most nights up very late calling the bar(s) she worked at, begging and waiting for her to come home. A lot of the times after her shift she would hop from bar to bar, and if she wasn’t home by midnight or so, I would end up getting on my bike in the middle of the night and riding around town searching for her, standing outside and looking in, looking into the bars and waiting for her to come out… I think I kind of use that same process when I’m shooting puddles, or any type of wandering I do on my own.

TGLS: Going back to Eggleston there’s that brief introductory comment in The Democratic Forest where he says he’s been out ‘photographing democratically,’ and in a sense I think you photograph the world and your life unilaterally, in precisely the same unflinching way you talk about your childhood and the patterns that started there. I think that beyond the autobiographical fact of you photographing all the time, I’m also compelled by, and really curious to ask about how photography seems to function as a kind of love in your work?

I’m thinking here especially of your photographs of your wife Meghan, particularly during I Heart, but also in the newer PUD work… Your photographs are so unabashed in their affections and their sincerity that they flatter us with the presumption that we’re mature enough to reciprocate. I think that’s very rare and noteworthy. The pictures of Meghan are also different than Harry Callahan photographing his wife Eleanor, and much closer to Jo Ann Verburg photographing her husband Jim, or Emmett Gowin photographing his wife Edith. How do love and the camera link up for you?

Jason Nocito: Thinking back from the start, like most people I was always making photographs of people closest to me. I found photography when I was in high school, when my brother left to join the military and left me a camera I immediately took to it. I made photographs of my friends – mainly of my closest friends only. This trajectory stayed true through the years, and looking back I have tons of photos of the people I was closest with. I have a pretty large and very disfunctional family (I’m one of nine children my father had with many different women) and maybe now looking back it’s as if I was creating my own family album, but with the friends that have passed through my life over the years…

With Meghan though, things are different. I’m not really just “documenting” our love or our relationship. There’s a difference or a shift mainly because I feel that I’m closer to her than to anyone I have ever been… In my photographs of her I feel she’s as much of a performer as a subject. In both PUD and I Heart, though, one thing comes to mind that my college professor Charles Harbutt used to say over and over and over: “whatever you do when making photographs, KEEP IT PERSONAL…..” And from that point on, I think that has been the one constant in my work.


* Henry James, Preface to Volume X of The New York Edition of Henry James
** Tod Papageorge Yale School of Art Commencement Talk 2004


Artist(s): Medium: jnocito[at]gmail[dot]com Site:

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