20under20 Spotlight: Nicholas Scarpinato

Where are you going to school and what is your program like?

I am a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). I’m in the VCU Arts Program, in the photo and film department, focusing on filmmaking. College has its ups and downs. I am glad I’m surrounded by amazing artists I can collaborate with, and bounce ideas off of.

At times, other parts of college can stifle my creativity. I feel like, in an art class, there shouldn’t be so many strict regulations. I prefer a free-thinking and creative environment, and sometimes that can be a challenge. I’ve had some classes that are extremely informative though. Learning the ins and outs of narrative and documentary films, as well as being able to bounce ideas off of fellow students, has helped me grow. Also, like-minded individuals around me have pushed me to be the best artist I can be.

Can you tell us more about your career so far and what you’re hoping to accomplish with your work?

I started just playing around and hanging out with friends, taking their pictures and exploring. It was very innocent. Eventually, when I moved to Richmond, it evolved into something way bigger than I ever thought possible. Having websites like Flickr has helped me see the scope of photography. What a lot of other individuals are doing and how they are making them has helped me further my art and has pushed me.

I started submitting to contests like Ron Howard/Canon Project Imagination and I ended up winning one of the spots in that contest. Before that, I had never won any professional contests at a national level. I’ve had requests for shoots, prints, and collaborations since that, and have been in publications and gallery shows, too. When I graduate, I plan on becoming a professional photographer and filmmaker. For my senior year I’m working on a year long thesis project. I’m going to make a short film that I want to be my biggest project to date. I am going to take what I’ve learned over the past five years and show it off in one big project.

Oxford Comma

This was of my first pictures I ever did. I was such a strange kid. I was walking through the forest with my camera and a remote. I found this tunnel and it was filled with this gross red water. I felt compelled to get in it. I started kicking up the water and shooting, and it turned out really beautiful for how on the fly the process was.

Do you consider yourself more of a fine art photographer, or are you looking to do fashion and editorial?

I would say I’m equally interested in both. Sometimes I don’t see the line dividing fashion and art. I like to blend the two. I feel like fashion can be just as much art as anything else. When I look through the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue and ID, it makes me incredibly excited. I admire how beautiful the pictures are and hope that one day I will be taking pictures for those magazines.

How do you approach a shoot? Do you have the idea fully planned before you shoot and execute, or do you come up with a lot of it on the fly or in the action?

I would say a little bit of both. For some shoots I plan out almost every aspect of the shoot. I’ll sketch out the image in my sketchbook and write out a little about it. Who my character is, what the space is like and what I’m trying to convey in the shoot. And then other times I really enjoy grabbing my film camera- not having a plan- and going on a walk with a model or friends and getting a feel for my subject – letting the process unfold naturally. I particularly enjoy photographing people I find interesting. I want to know more about the subject. Taking their picture and putting them in a vulnerable state lets me take a peek into their soul.

Do you usually produce everything yourself or do you have a team?

Depends on the project. For filmmaking I always have a team, or a group of people, helping and working with me to create the final product. When I’m taking a self portrait or shooting a subject, it’s usually just me. In the past I’ve had people help me, but more times than not it’s just me and the person I’m photographing.

What are the most important influences on your photography? Who do you consider to be your peers, your mentors, your heroes?

Immediately the people that influence me are my friends and family. Without my roommate, Marissa Bolen, and other friends who are artists, I don’t think I would see the world in the same way if I hadn’t met them. They influence me through a constant artistic dialogue and experiencing life and growing together. My family is extremely influential on me through supporting my artistic endeavors. They gave me my first DSLR camera. I’m also able to draw from experiences I’ve had with them, in the past, to inspire my work.

Artistic influences: Rodney Smith, Tim Walker, Robert and Shana Park Harrison, Sally Mann, Annie Lebvowitz are just a few photographers who have influenced my art and the way I go about creating.

The Helpers

This is photo has captured absolutely everyone’s imagination, from all the judges, to the engineers and designers building the landing page. What was the inspiration for this shot and how did you do it? 

That photograph was actually inspired by a photograph that was published in a newspaper in the 1930’s of a young boy in a crowd of his peers. They all had hats on and, for whatever reason, as soon as the photographer snapped the image he was the only one looking up.

There isn’t a lot of information about this image, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I don’t know if it comes from thinking about my own childhood and thinking about my place within the crowd. I started sketching it and writing about it. I didn’t take the picture for a while, at points I even forgot about the idea.

One day I was flipping through my sketchbook and I saw it and I knew I had to make it. I asked my father to help me in the garden in my parents’ back yard. He stood at the top of a ladder and I directed him for about 30 minutes to get the posing just right. Then I remotely took the picture. After it was done it took me about two weeks to edit.


Where was this taken? How did you convince her to get in that stream?

This was taken in the countryside in Virginia. Beforehand I had been sketching out this picture of a girl blending into the water as if she existed only in that stream. I’m lucky enough to have friends who are willing to do a lot for me. I think they trust my art and this makes them comfortable getting into unusual situations for me.

Can you tell me more about your experience with the Flickr community? Have you interacted a lot with folks on the site?

I’ve had great experiences with the Flickr community. I first started attending Flickr meet ups about three years ago. I’ve made really good friends off of Flickr. One of my really good friends, Kyle Thompson, stayed at my house when he was traveling for his photo book. He stayed at my house and we built a great artistic relationship. Hanging out with him and others — Brendon Burton, Lissy Elle, and Stephen Medeiros — has been something special that I cherish. Getting to know creative people my age has been something very special. Without Flickr, I don’t know if that would have happened.

Were you surprised when we contacted you about 20under20? Hopefully you didn’t think we were spamming you? :)

I was incredibly surprised! When I found out I was at the Watermelon festival in Richmond. I was on my phone and read the email and was like “OMG what?!” I actually researched the email to make sure it wasn’t fake or anything. When I figured out it was real I felt so honored that I was chosen alongside the most creative young photographers of my generation.

Have you gotten any interesting contact or feedback that has made you happy or surprised since the announcement?

Yes! Vanguard, a photo equipment company, wants me to represent me and they’ve sent me some great equipment. I’ve gotten a lot of interviews and press which has been really awesome. At the end of the day, I’m just really glad my art has reached more people.

Is your mother proud?

She is so proud of me. She was so excited when she found out and has been incredibly supportive!


This is another really lovely image. How did you capture it?

For this image, similar to the last one, I was wandering around my neighborhood only this time with a friend. We stumbled upon an abandoned house. We were exploring all over and most of it was so decrepit that we couldn’t even walk in the rooms. We did find one room that was stable and as we walked through, dust was being kicked up creating streams of light. I had my friend lay down so it looked like he fell from the ceiling just like the rest of the rubble on the ground.

What do you want your legacy to be when you look back on your career in 50 years?

I want to make sure I never stop making art and personally I just want to make the best art I can right now. I want to have explored a lot of things, not just with photography but also sculpture, painting and filmmaking.

Nicholas, thanks so much for sharing your story and congratulations on being one of our Flickr 20under20