Monday, October 11, 2010

Photographer Jordan takes viewers through ‘the numbers’

Mass consumption, mass culture collide in artist’s giant photos

Paul K. Haeder

Photography is this fabulous medium from which the human shared vision of the world captured in silvers, dyes and digital pixels has transformed culture.

The Gulf of Mexico and the coast itself have been captured over decades in the viewfinders of artists, and now we are at the point of cataloguing and reflecting the pain of the BP oil disaster through multitudes of photographers who have amassed there to tell a story.

Photographs are now being used to raise consciousness, and one area that the photographic image plows into ethos and pathos is the environment.

Lucky for Spokane, and thanks to a benefactor from Boeing and his widow, we have not only a riveting event featuring an internationally acclaimed photographer, but Whitworth University now has one of the country’s largest collection of photography books.

Thanks to Floyd and Shirley Daniel, hundreds of books – coffee table types – are in a special collections group at Whitworth’s Library.

According to Tad Wisenor, the university’s director of campaign planning and fund raising, having the Daniel Collection brings to the private college an historical record of photography’s impact on our world. Daniel was an avid videographer and photographer who heard about Whitworth at his Seattle church.

Bringing to campus Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan Oct. 12, 7 p.m. to the Weyerhaeuser building, ties into the college’s effort to teach the Christian community about the impact of photography on world cultures and consumerism’s impact on ecosystems.

[see his work here:

“We want the Whitworth community to realize the decisions they make have a broader impact on the world,” Wisenor said.

Jordan’s work is varied, and he is famously known for those huge digitally manipulated panels of the junk and stuff our consumer society uses and throws away. His work is haunting and beautiful, even when we find out that that horizon that looks from a distance like a colorful beach is made up of 2 million plastic bottles, the number the U.S. uses every five minutes.

His artwork’s themes tie together various forms of dualism: “E Pluribus Unum”; “Midway; Running the Numbers I” and “II;” “Intolerable Beauty; In Katrina’s Wake.”

Jordan says this about his show, “In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster”: “There is evidence to suggest that Katrina was not an entirely natural event like an earthquake or tsunami. The 2005 hurricane season’s extraordinary severity can be linked to global warming, which America contributes to in disproportionate measure through our extravagant consumer and industrial practices.

Never before have the cumulative effects of our consumerism become so powerfully focused into a visible form, like the sun’s rays narrowed through a magnifying glass. Almost 300,000 Americans lost everything they owned in the Katrina disaster. The question in my mind is whether we are all responsible in some degree.”

His images of rotting and desiccated remains of seabirds in the continuing project, “Midway: Message from the Gyre,” awakens in many viewers the reality we dump so much plastic into the ocean and around its edges that we are yearly responsible for the deaths of millions of birds, marine mammals and fish who eat things like BIC lighters and soda pop six-pack rings.

One portrait, huge at 64-inches by 94-inches, shows a hammerhead and blue shark, with Japanese calligraphy in the center. Almost like a tattoo some sailor would have scribed into leathery skin. Except this image was “made” using 270,000 fossilized shark teeth in a pointillist genre, the total number of sharks killed everyday for their fins (known as the extinction-facilitating shark-finning practice to serve mostly Asian palates.

Some of his images represent the futility of modern culture to want something nature never intended – in “Barbie Dolls” (2008, 60 inches x 80 inches), the viewer standing way back sees the contours of a woman’s torso and breasts. Upon closer inspection, the flesh color canvas is made up of thousands of pods, almost like some Rose Bowl float flower-like shape. Except each shape is made up of Barbie dolls, 32,000 in all, equalling the number of elective breast augmentation surgeries done in the U.S. monthly in 2006.

Jordan has made a name for himself using the photographic art form to sculpt a certain visceral and intellectual reaction from us, his audience and his consumer masses. The impact of the number of cellular phones tossed away daily, shaped like an undulating sea, or the 1.14 million paper grocery bags used hourly in the U.S. manipulated to look like a birch forest pull the average viewer into his own personal space – how and why we are all shaped by this hyper-consumerism society, where obsolescence is either perceived or planned.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend classes at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, and I’ve interviewed a few artists, and photographers specifically for newspaper and radio shows. One show (heard here) included talking with Arizona physician Michael Collier, who has for 30 years created 13 books showing his love of geology, photography and aeronautics.

“I want people to see beauty in the landscape,” Collier says. “If they can start there and realize that there are tendrils of information, that there are stories buried in it, then I’ve done the work I’m supposed to be doing.”

His work covers beautiful shapes and colors, contours and lines and geometrics, all seen from this single-engine Cessna 180. His photos can be seen in many publications, but one of his books, “Over the Mountains, An Aerial View of Geology”(Mikaya Press), is the kick-off picture book focused on the morphology or evolution of landscapes.

Matthew White (read interview here --

has spent decades in the Gulf of Mexico, photographing towns, ecosystems, and the intersection between nature and development. White believes in showing the reality of the oil spill, not exploiting people’s misery.

What these photographers bring to their work is a larger sense of how the image brings to the human eye a conscious decision to allow the sheer vastness of our landscape and our consumption to overtake our intuition.

Jordan’s talk ties into the larger goal of sustainability at Whitworth, which Wisenor says has had much impetus – from students – over the past five years. Wisenor, with a master’s in urban and regional planning from Eastern Washington University, says this effort to show students the “value of creation protection” (ecological awareness) allows students who haven’t necessarily been exposed to sustainability issues to connect their lives and consumerism to negative effects Jordan so beautifully shapes in his photographs.

Photographer Chris Jordan and his photos will be at the Weyerhaeuser building at Whitworth University at 7 p.m. Oct. 12. Reception is free to the public. For more information on Jordan, visit

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