Chris Jordan discusses “invisible” large-scale challenges at Tate Forum

Photographer Chris Jordan at SMUAward-winning photographic artist Chris Jordan compares himself to a guy at a party who points out the bloody rhinoceros in the room.

Jordan’s large-scale photographs attempt to evoke the magnitude of large-scale environmental and cultural problems, from mountains of garbage generated by U.S. consumerism to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Jordan, the National Geographic international eco-ambassador for Earth Day 2008, spoke at SMU on Jan. 27 as part of the 2008-09 Tate Distinguished Lecture Series. While he answered student questions about his work, he told them he couldn’t offer solutions to the unsettling cultural issues he photographs. Instead, Jordan said it’s his hope his photos prompt people to talk about the subject matter.

“Artists are just allowed to raise the issue,” Jordan said. “That’s the only opinion I have – we should be talking about it.” Read more under the link.

(Right, Chris Jordan speaks at the Turner Construction/Wachovia Student Forum on the day of his Tate Distinguished Lecture. Photo by Jake Dean.)

Jordan’s Hurricane Katrina series chronicles what he described as the “shocking” devastation he witnessed in New Orleans. His sometimes colorful, sometimes muddy-grey images include a side-by-side refrigerator perched in the branches of a big tree; cinder blocks tossed as blithely as plastic Legos; a church organ floating in a river as carelessly as a stick; a red lawn mower crushed as gingerly as a Coke can; an upended water tower sitting like a marshmallow; and clothes, books and personal belongings frozen in curious poses, like an archaeological dig fossilized in mud.

Jordan told students that before he shot photos for a living, he’d worked unhappily for 10 years as a corporate lawyer, seduced into the profession by what he now considers greed. That changed when he went into therapy and took up photography full time, initially taking pictures of garbage out of a fascination with color. Later he began to ponder the cultural ramifications of American consumerism and its impact on the human spirit.

Jordan confessed he’s never had any official art training. His father collected photographs and his mother was a watercolor painter. Jordan has, however, played jazz piano since he was young.

“There are similarities between music and the visual arts,” Jordan said. “They both require that you show up in the moment with deep attention.”

How did you begin your photography career?

It’s not what I ever imagined I’d be doing with my career. Only six years ago today I was a corporate lawyer. I went to law school at the University of Texas at Austin. I don’t even know why I went to law school. I had graduated with an English degree and I didn’t know what to do next. I knew I wasn’t going to make a living speaking English or reading Walt Whitman poems and so I went to law school.

I just went for it without really thinking. I wasn’t thinking about what do I want out of my life. Who do I want to be. What am I about. I didn’t even know to think about that stuff, because I’d never been taught that, by parents or teachers or anybody. So I just sort of went in this direction. I got seduced by the greed. I didn’t know that at the time.

I became a corporate lawyer. When I graduated from law school, I moved to Seattle because I liked mountain climbing, I liked nature, and I wanted to do my law work. I spent 10 years working in a law firm, being an insurance lawyer. The very first day, I knew I hated it. I went, “Oh my God. What have I done?”

And yet I was so far in, I didn’t have the courage to make a change. I was married at the time. I became very, very unhappy and angry over the course of the 10 years because all around me I saw people who were doing what they loved. I saw people who were passionate, who were writers, or artists or teachers, doing what they loved. And I saw myself wasting. And I thought, “Here I am, this unhappy lawyer, in my late 30s, and I’m just screwed. And all these other people must have just gotten lucky with their lives.” I started feeling really hopeless and I even started thinking about suicide. I didn’t think about that for very long because I had a son who was six years old. My own life was not how I wanted it to be. And that’s when I got myself into therapy.

Why garbage?

The first picture I took of a pile of garbage, I did it because I was interested in color. It reminded me of an Impressionist painting. Then some friends and I started talking about consumerism. That got me going on the idea of photographing garbage as a way to comment on our consumer culture.

I used an 8 x 10 view camera and I would travel around Washington, and eventually around the country, finding garbage. The idea was to try and evoke the scale of our mass consumption. As I began to read about consumerism, and to engage in the issue, I very quickly realized that even the biggest pile of garbage I’d ever seen wasn’t the cumulative effect of our mass consumption. It was just one pile of some of Seattle’s garbage for one day – so just a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket.

The more I learned the more I discovered this incredibly huge and frightening issue. Those who have studied this were warning against our nation’s emphasis on gaining material wealth and about the deadening effect of our consumer culture on the human spirit. They gave evidence, citing the number of people on drugs, who are alcoholic, suicidal. I started thinking, “Oh that’s me.”

I had followed the American Dream exactly. I went to law school and got a good job, had a really nice condo, had a really nice car, and yet I was so angry and unhappy and unfulfilled and was thinking about suicide. This kind of explained to me why this was happening.

How did you make the photographs in your series Running the Numbers so you capture hundreds of thousands of objects?

I’d been reading books about our mass culture and the enormous statistics that describe our mass culture, like the 20.6 million barrels of oil that are brought into the United States every day. I was traveling around the country taking pictures of stuff like this pile of cell phones and wondering “Where can I go to photograph the number of cell phones we throw out in a day – which happens to be 426,000 cell phones a day – to show the actual quantities of what we consume?”

I quickly realized there was nowhere I could go and stand in front of the cumulative effects of our mass consumption. It’s an invisible phenomenon. It’s spread out over thousands of households in thousands of towns in over tens of thousands of different locations, and it’s never ever brought into one. As a photographer working with a camera it sort of put me into an interesting conundrum.

That’s when it hit me, the idea of digital construction. I called a buddy in the recycling industry and asked him to send me 200 cell phones. I photographed them, and then using Photoshop I digitally expanded the number of phones, keeping track of the quantity until I had 426,000.

Then I did the same with brown paper supermarket bags, until I had 1.14 million bags, which is the number used in the United States in one hour. Then I did it with plastic cups, using one that I’d gotten from an airline flight. I exponentially expanded it until I had one million plastic cups. That’s the number used on airline flights in the United States every six hours. Then I got plastic bottles from a recycling facility, and stitched together two million plastic bottles, which is five minutes of our plastic bottle consumption in the United States.

What’s the significance of trying to represent these huge numbers?

What this is really about, thanks to all the information coming into us through the Internet, we’re learning about our effect on the cultures of other countries around the world. Just a few years ago, nobody knew what happened if you bought a pair of shoes; did that affect someone else in the world, somebody who is working in a way that is unfair, to make my shoes, to make my hardwood floors, to make my rosewood speaker cabinets?

With all of the information available to us now, we’re each developing what I call the Google Earth world view, where we’re beginning to see more clearly then ever before how interconnected we all are. So we learn about mass phenomena, like the fact that the United States is the No. 1 consumer of oil – about 20.6 million barrels of oil a day. The No. 2 consumer is China, which burns 7 million barrels of oil a day. That’s the imbalance in American mass consumption.

But there’s no way of experiencing mass phenomena, like the number of people dying from genocide in Rwanda, or the number of Americans without health insurance. The only way to know it is to read a giant number, through statistics. There’s a kind of dryness to that, where you can’t feel anything. The number is so huge it’s beyond our ability to comprehend it. When we hear that 1.2 billion people are starving, it’s just overwhelming.

I’m trying to take the numbers and translate them into a more visual language so it will matter to us.