Riffing With Images
- Words by Chris Mitchell
Chris Jordan chooses his words carefully, so I’m surprised when he uses the word ‘riffing’ to describe the post-production work he does with his photographs. A guy who spent a decade as an insurance litigator should not be throwing around bohemian jazz terms. I had a lot to learn about Chris Jordan. And about photography.
Throughout his childhood and while he was at law school, Jordan maintained a fondness for jazz music and photography, but ultimately stuck to his books, passed the bar and spent the next ten years in a career that he describes as ‘spiritual hard work’. The transition from lawyer to photographer was catalysed by a therapist who opened Chris like a closet (his words) and started rearranging items.
‘For ten years I sat there in that law office with the realisation that all around me were these brilliant people – musicians giving concerts and authors doing book readings and people being passionate
and I realised that I was fundamentally not living my life. I could see myself in another ten or 20 years as an old person filled with regret and, compared to that, the idea of failing as an artist didn’t seem so scary.’
So Jordan took the leap of faith, and, just to be sure he wouldn’t have a safety net, he resigned from the bar. For his first experiments with photography, Jacobs shot ‘trippy colour theory’. One day, he shot a pile of garbage in a junkyard and showed it to his friends.
‘Wow,’ they said. ‘This is consumerism. This is a portrait of America.’
That photo, titled Recycling Yard #1
became the first of many ‘portraits’ that feature discarded cell phone chargers and crushed cars, detritus from a country that prides itself on upgraded features and shiny, new technology.
Jordan uses music as the inspiration for his photography. ‘To me there’s a structure in music that mirrors the structure of the real world. Things like harmony and rhythm and colour and balance and a complex tonal scale – those translate directly into visual art. The kind of jazz I like has an edge and has an improvisatory feel, and I hope my work has that.’
Jordan’s first two shows, ‘Intolerable Beauty’ and ‘In Katrina’s Wake’ were shot on film, flat bed scanned and then minimally manipulated in Photoshop, but ‘Running the Numbers’ is a little different. For one thing, Jordan starts with a statistic that reflects the American culture of consumerism. Cigarettes
depicts 65 000 cigarettes, equal to the number of American teenagers under the age of 18 who become addicted to cigarettes every month. Cell phones
shows 426 000 handsets, equal to the number of mobile phones retired in the US every day.
To create these works, Jordan started with a quantifiable number of objects, then shot them from different angles and ‘did some riffing’ (stitched the images together in Photoshop) to create an accurate representation. The size of each print was determined by how many objects were required to represent the statistic.
This piece is enormous – ten feet high by 23 feet wide, mounted on six panels – but that was the only way to depict 2.3 million prison uniforms, the number of prisoners incarcerated in the US. So Jordan rented a pile of prison uniforms and worked out how small he could make each uniform to still have it be recognisable: one sixteenth of an inch tall by a quarter of an inch wide.
‘The US has the highest prison population of any country on Earth, and that’s both in terms of the actual number of people in jail and the percentage of our population. That includes China, all the ‘evil dictatorships’ and the supposed enemies of freedom. It is mind blowing that this image represents a real phenomenon that’s happening in this country.’
In Jordan’s ‘Intolerable Beauty’ series, there was an image of a real cell phone dump site. In his presentations, he would show this image and then talk about the actual number of cell phones retired in the US every year: 130 million. ‘I could never relate to that number. I don’t know how many 130 million is. I just know it’s this insanely giant number.’
Jordan wanted to create a visual representation for this statistic, and so Cell Phones
was born. To create this image, Jordan contacted his ‘cell phone guy’ and had him ship a box of several hundred handsets. He then dumped the phones into a frame in his studio, mounted a camera directly above them and shot. Then he stirred the phones and shot again. He did this until the number of hand sets in the images totaled 426 000.
Recent studies suggest that the quality of bottled water is lower than the quality of water which comes out of US taps. The reason for this, according to Jordan, is that tap water is measured by the EPA who tests for approximately 90 chemicals. Bottled water, on the other hand, is monitored by the FDA who only tests for six.
One of the chemicals they don’t test for is found in the plastic bottles, which, over time, leach into the water that we then consume. Once in our bodies, that chemical acts as a female hormone.
‘The majority of all plastic bottled beverages we drink now is bottled water, and most of the bottled water comes from very far away at enormous environmental waste, like shipping container loads of water from Fiji when you could drink it right out of the tap. It’s like a giant smoke screen that’s having the most incredible environmental effect and costing billions of dollars.’
To create this image, Jordan got a couple thousand bottles from the Washington Recycling Department and dumped them onto his driveway. Like Cell Phones
, he positioned the camera above the bottles and shot, then stirred the bottles with a rake and shot again, until it added up to two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes. This process took over three weeks.
is ten feet long from end to end, but that only depicts the number of bottles used in the US in five minutes. If the piece showed the number of bottles we use in an entire year, the image would stretch 199 miles.
‘There’s a part of me that wants to be a preacher and wag my finger. But preaching doesn’t really get anybody anywhere or, at least, it’s never worked for me. No one has ever convinced me to change any aspect of myself by preaching at me. On the other hand, I don’t want to be one of those artists who are colourfully objective. To me, there’s a detachment in that approach. So I walk a tightrope between being an artist who has no opinion and an activist who wags the finger too much. My goal is to be conscious enough about these issues so as to see the complexity without collapsing into detachment or becoming preachy or one-dimensional about it.’