Eye of the Beholder

CHRIS JORDAN creates a world where what you see—at first glance—isn’t what you get

Sixteen years ago, at the age of thirty-eight, the artist-photographer Chris Jordan left corporate law for fear of letting his talent wither and waste. Soon he was making some of the most provocative images on the American scene. Jordan’s best photographs resemble abstract expressionist paintings in their arrangement of color, form and rhythm, not to mention their epic scale. In keeping with the ab-ex creed, these works don’t appear to be “of” anything but themselves, like Pollock’s spatters and Rothko’s blocks of color. But they do invite imaginative contemplation. Here, for example, is a light blue canvas marbled with white, suggesting the glimmering surface of a pool in full sunlight. And there is a pointillist landscape—a field of wildflowers?—under a shroud of mist.

But wait. As we cross the gallery and approach the work, we see Jordan’s dots and strokes take on a curious resolution. As we come nose-to-surface with these vast images, we are struck with dread, or at least troubled wonder, to find that they’re composed of thousands upon thousands of tiny photographs of commonplace objects—objects that represent our voracious consumptive habits and the damage they do. The glimmering pool? It’s actually thousands of jet contrails. The pointillist landscape? Plastic bottles, a whole wasteland of them, as far as the eye can see.

“There’s an incredible, almost terrible, beauty about his work,” notes Mark Sloan, a writer and curator who heads the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina. “You’re seduced by the surface appeal of the image, and then the rug is pulled out from under you as you realize what you’re looking at—this horrible environmental catastrophe.”

The two pieces mentioned above are from Jordan’s series “Running the Numbers” (2006–present), in which images of cargo containers, mail order catalogues, plastic bags, Vicodin pills, cigarette packs, tire valve caps, aluminum cans, paper cups, packing peanuts—garbage is his great subject—take curiously elegant measure of our mass consumption. That measure is quite precise. The wall plaque for a piece called “Handguns, 2007,” for instance, says we’re looking at “29,569 handguns, equal to the number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. in 2004.” “Plastic Bottles, 2007” depicts two million beverage bottles, “the number used in the United Status every fifteen minutes.”

“The real root of that series was rage,” Jordan tells us by phone. “Rage against the incomprehensible enormity of our mass consumption.”

Raised in Old Greenwich and based in Seattle, he is, as we talk, somewhere in the Bay Area, awaiting a flight to South Korea to keynote an environmental conference. From there he’d fly to Berlin for a two-month artist residency at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. After that? Anywhere. Jordan and his wife, the poet Victoria Sloan Jordan, recently separated, sold their house and closed up his studio (but remain business partners and best friends). “So I decided to hit the road for a bit. It could be one year, it could be five.” As you read this, Jordan is wandering the Earth with little more than a backpack and some camera gear.

Once upon a time, before the rage—before the awakening—he lived in the anesthetic fog that plenitude induces in most of us. Color was his obsession. On his way home from lawyering, he would meander through Seattle’s alleys, looking for random occurrences of color to photograph. “In the alleys, I would see these amazing scenes—a rusty old drain pipe that’s slowly dripping water, and right underneath is an entire garden of gorgeous mosses and ferns that had grown there for twenty-five years. These photographs that I call my ‘alley studies’ led me on an exploration all over the dirty, nasty, out-of-the-way parts of Seattle.” Specifically, to the Port of Seattle, where he photographed mountainous piles of garbage. “The color is astonishing,” Jordan notes. “The brightly colored potato chip bags and Altoids tins, all the stuff that’s marketed to grab your attention on the shelf—it totally looks like a Monet painting if you just look at the color.”

One day Jordan showed a big garbage print to his friend Phil Borges, a renowned humanitarian and photographer. “As he stood in front of it, I started talking about color,” Jordan recalls. “And he said, ‘Dude, this isn’t about color, this is a portrait of America. You’ve hit on something here. Keep doing this.’ And that’s when the light bulb went on.”

The garbage pictures evolved into “Intolerable Beauty” (2003–2005), the series that put Jordan on the art world map. He photographed, en masse, cell phones, spent bullet casings, circuit boards, cigarette butts, light bulbs, grain silos, crushed cars, recycled matter, steel drums, wooden pallets, piles of sawdust. Some of these images suggest otherworldly landscapes; all of them are beautiful in the way that an industrial plant seen at night, with its floating lights and purple smoke, can be beautiful. This paradox became a sort of Chris Jordan trademark. “You can’t escape the beauty of our world, no matter how hard you try,” he says. “It comes and hits you in the forehead with a baseball bat.”

Soon galleries from Los Angeles to Madrid were giving Jordan one-man shows. The New York Times profiled him on the front page of its Arts & Leisure section. The Seattle Times called him “the ‘it’ artist of the international green movement.” He gave TED talks and appeared on The Colbert Report and Bill Moyers’ Journal. His work landed in the collections of the Getty Museum, the Nevada Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, among others. He published coffee-table books based on his two big series, “Intolerable Beauty” and “Running the Numbers,” and between them, a book of photographs titled In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster (2006)—images of people’s possessions weirdly displaced by the great hurricane, introduced by environmental all-star Bill McKibben.

But to dwell on Jordan’s successes is to avoid the deeper, more instructive story—the story of a journey whose greatest reward was grief.

Chris Jordan grew up on Harding Road, “four doors down from the Perrot Library,” in Old Greenwich. Both of his parents were artists—his father, Rocky, a photographer steeped in the history of the art form, and his mother, Susan, a watercolor painter. Each was a skilled technician, though Jordan adds delicately, “They never found their way out of a very traditional view of things like potted flowers and chairs on porches with the sunlight coming through.” Chris inherited his father’s medium and his mother’s eye for color. He once said, “I crave to be able to photograph the way a painter paints—in a loose, expressive way.”

The Jordans left Greenwich in 1978, after Chris graduated from Eastern Junior High School, and settled in Santa Barbara, California. Law? “I knew from the beginning it was the wrong thing,” he admits. “I went into law just thinking it’s respectable and you could make good money, not realizing I was being driven by fear.” He laughs. “This was before I spent any years in therapy. I’d never had a self-reflective moment in my life, up until sometime in my thirties.”

Jordan, at fifty-four, has a full head of wavy dark hair, and a lean, hawkish face made the more intense by rimless glasses and a focused squint. His manner, too, is intense, since it carries the conviction of a man from whom the blinders have fallen away; but he’s rescued from fatal seriousness (that environmentalist’s hazard) by a sharp, self-deprecating wit. And, crucially, he doesn’t wag his finger at us, believing that such an approach would deny the complexity of the problems he wants to bring to our attention. “For the ‘Running the Numbers’ pieces, I make sure it’s an issue that I’m personally implicated in,” he says. “I’m not looking at some bad guy over there. It’s all of us.”

As an artist, Jordan occupies uneasy ground. “He exists at the intersection of environmental activism and the fine arts,” Mark Sloan observes. “There are very few people who can pull that off.” Sloan means that activist art tends to be one-note and ephemeral, drifting away with yesterday’s papers. “Though topicality plays a role,” Chris Bruce, director of the Museum of Art at Washington State University, has said, “[Jordan’s] photographs stand as autonomous works of art.”

Musician Rob Mathes, a friend of Jordan’s since their childhood in Greenwich (Chris’s Katrina photos adorn Rob’s 2015 album Wheelbarrow), sees the artist and his message as inextricable. “Chris, he’s kind of the Earth’s town crier. His message should be shouted from the rooftops all over the world—a clarion call of the universe.”

Well into “Intolerable Beauty,” though, Jordan himself came to doubt the impact of his work. This occurred to him one day in the Port of Seattle. “I was photographing a giant pile of garbage, and it was the best of my giant-piles-of-garbage photographs,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is our mass consumption, right here.’” Then a Godzilla-sized bucket loader came along and dumped it all into one huge train car. The operator stopped long enough to explain to Jordan what he was seeing: a tiny portion of one day’s garbage from one neighborhood in Seattle. The full train, a mile long, left the Emerald City every day for a landfill in Portland.

“In that moment, it hit me that I thought I was photographing the river, the great river of mass consumption, but I was actually photographing one drop in the river,” Jordan says. “There is no place where you can go and photograph the whole ocean that it flows into, because it flows to a million invisible places.” (By “invisible” he means landfills, which are constantly being covered over to banish the stench.)

“Running the Numbers” was born of Jordan’s frustration. If no photograph could capture the scope of our consumption, he wondered, then how could he make people grasp it? The numbers he was reading—of credit cards, of plastic bags, of oil barrels, of cut-down trees, of unwanted pets, of dollars spent in Iraq—were mind-boggling, but also strangely desensitizing. You simply couldn’t visualize all those zeros. You couldn’t see what they meant. Or could you?

In the early days of the Iraq War, when many Americans worried about government intrusiveness, Jordan read that Chrysler had recalled 800,000 Jeep Libertys, or four years’ worth. “Yeah, I remember having 800,000 liberties,” he thought, ironically, and set about playing with that idea. He borrowed a red Liberty from Jeep’s website and multiplied it digitally, making a rectangle one hundred Jeeps wide by a thousand tall—a tower of Libertys. Then he put another tower next to it. One year of Liberty recalls. When Jordan extracted the image from his industrial-sized printer, he stood face-to-face with an image that staggered him. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, look how many Jeep Libertys that is!’ It was astonishing to see 200,000 of something. I had no comprehension of the number until that moment.”

Jordan discovered he could use the same method to create far subtler works, works of strange beauty readable on many levels. Some are abstract in the manner of “Handguns” and “Jet Trails”; others form his favorite patterns, the rose window and the mandala; still others are novel recreations of famous paintings: Picasso’s Blue Nude composed of plastic water bottles, Van Gogh’s The Starry Night made of cigarette lighters. The tiny dots of paint in Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” become, in Jordan’s hands, soda cans. To make the picture, he bought “one of every kind of soda can,” about seventy in total. He photographed them all, rotating each can five times to create a full color palette; he then deposited the photos into a software program designed to his specifications. The completed work, “Cans Seurat,” is composed of 106,000 soda cans, “the number used in the U.S. every thirty seconds.” But why use the Seurat painting? What is the, er, point? “It’s a picture of what it looked like to be in a park before we had all this stuff,” Jordan explains, noting the painting’s idyllic quality. “No parking lot filled with SUV’s and coolers, no barbecues, no plastic plates, none of this shit we take to a park. It’s a commentary on where we’ve gotten to in our mass consumption.”

Jordan’s art inspires complex reactions: a single work can evoke amusement, fascination, horror and sorrow. Consider the extraordinary “Barbie Dolls, 2008,” a richly patterned image of a woman’s breasts. Zoom in and you discover the breasts are ingeniously made of naked Barbie dolls. “That’s by far the most popular, and also the most controversial, piece in the ‘Running the Numbers’ series,” Jordan reports. After rummaging through Seattle’s Goodwill stores, he returned to his studio with his many-splendored haul of Barbies. “They all came dressed—the tennis Barbie and the camouflage Barbie and the prom Barbie and the nurse Barbie—and I’ll never forget spending this really creepy evening in my studio, undressing fifty-three Barbie dolls. If anybody had seen me that night, they’d have been like, ‘Uh-oh, call the cops!’” Jordan arranged the Barbies into circular “florettes” and photographed them. Then, using a nude photo of a friend as a template, he multiplied the florettes into a grand Barbie tapestry, “slowly building this pair of smallish, naturally beautiful female breasts.”

What was Jordan thinking? This idea too emerged from a statistic—that some 300,000 American women had elective breast augmentation surgery in 2006. He learned further that in Texas the “boob job” had become the high school graduation gift of choice. “And that just broke my heart,” Jordan says. “It took me about a second to realize the reason many women feel they have to go have a surgical procedure done on their body to feel beautiful is because they’re so badly objectified by men for their whole lives—and I’m just as guilty as anybody.”

Though “Running the Numbers” represented the apex of Jordan’s art, the series left him dissatisfied. “There was this chasm between me as an individual and the enormity of global consumption,” he says. “And I was craving a way to bridge that divide, to somehow experience these global phenomena on a more personal level. That was the missing piece—and I had no idea how to find it.”

Around this time Jordan learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where ocean gyres gather human refuse into a concentration of plastic twice the size of Texas. In 2008 he attended a small meeting of scientists in hopes of bumming a ride on a research boat to the patch. “My dream,” he says, “was to climb to the top of the mast with my camera and make a horizon-to-horizon photograph of floating plastic garbage that would blow everybody’s minds.”

Instead, he learned the patch is somewhat illusory; garbage disperses in the ocean like smoke disperses in air. “And I remember I slapped my knee and said, ‘Damn! I’m a photographer, and I want to take a photograph of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch!’ I said it half in humor and half in frustration. And this young woman named Anna Cummins was sitting next me—she has since become one of the world’s leading activists on ocean plastic pollution—and she said, ‘Chris, if you want to take a photograph of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, go to Midway Island and look inside the stomachs of dead baby albatrosses.’

“And I will never forget that moment. I heard this bell ring—like a temple bell in the very back of a cathedral going, ‘waaaooong.’ And I was like, ‘What did you just say?’”

Midway Atoll, in the Pacific between North America and Asia, served as an important battle station in World War II. These days only about three dozen people, employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, live there—together with innumerable Laysan albatrosses. It is the albatross that Coleridge’s ancient mariner shoots with his crossbow, dooming his crew: “And till my ghastly tale is told,” the mariner intones, “This heart within me burns.”

When Jordan made his first trip to Midway in September 2009, the ghastly tale became his to tell. “My only interest when I first went to Midway was the plastic inside the birds,” he says. “I wasn’t even that interested in albatrosses. But I did think it was strangely poetic that of all the possible birds it could be, sending us this lyrically horrible message from the very heart of the Pacific Ocean, it’s the albatross, this iconic carrier of messages.”

In September the live albatrosses were all out at sea, roaming the ocean in search of food. Their babies, many of them, had died in August and now were decomposing in their nests. “I came back from the trip with this god-awful body of photographs, these horrible scenes of birds whose bodies are filled with plastic”—bottle caps, cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, toys, unrecognizable jagged bits. Their parents had swallowed these things first, unable to distinguish food from plastic, and regurgitated them into the eager mouths of their young. The photos depict beak, bone and feather, and at the center of that grisly assemblage, where a stomach once existed, a bright imperishable jumble of plastic.

Jordan left Midway thinking his work was done, though notably worse for wear: “I was totally devastated by what I saw there. We were all devastated. When I look back on it now, I think I was clinically depressed.”

His “Message from the Gyre” photos went viral—more viral than anything he’d ever done—appearing on the websites of prestigious publications like Wired and The New York Review of Books. “But the response,” he notes, “was trauma.” The most cynical commentators remarked that albatrosses deserved to die if they can’t tell food from trash—though the same would hold for sea turtles, seals, fish and whales, and, Jordan’s larger point, ourselves. Not unlike albatrosses, we big-brained mammals also fail to distinguish between what nourishes and what destroys.

Once, Jordan showed the Midway photos to a girls’ school in Brisbane, Australia—“an entire auditorium full of beautiful girls, dressed in uniforms.” When he had finished his macabre presentation, the teacher who’d invited him stood up with a pale expression on her face. “I see the intention behind your work,” she said, “but what I feel is panic.” Then she began to weep. “Would you please tell me, how do we get to hope from here?”

Jordan knew instinctively that he had to go back to Midway. True, he had managed to tell the story of mass consumption in a bracing new way: not by bigger mountains or greater numbers, “but in a handful of plastic.” He had held a mirror to our culture, and what that mirror showed was death. But was it sufficient to talk about death without talking about life?

He returned to Midway in a different season—high summer. “And instead of being met by this silent, dead killing field and the horrible smell of death, I stepped off the plane and there was this cacophony, a million of these extraordinary birds singing and dancing like crazy. So immediately the salve, the medicine, began to show itself. And I just fell in love with these magnificent beings.”

The project was a documentary film. To make it took eight years and eight trips to Midway (with a small crew, including his wife, Victoria, who helped write and produce the film), at a cost of nearly $100,000 per trip. “And I’m not a rich guy,” Jordan hastens to add. But between Kickstarter campaigns and foundation grants and his own formidable drive, he kept finding a way back to this remotest of islands.

The albatrosses, having no natural predators on Midway, did not know fear, and admitted Jordan among them with apparent bonhomie. But Jordan’s love of the birds exacted an emotional price. “I am seeing a bird that’s choking to death—you can see it’s choking to death on a piece of plastic,” he recalls. “And I couldn’t hold back any longer. I would just drop the camera and run over and put my arms around it and hold it, and put my cheek on its warm body as it took its last gasping breaths. And I would just dissolve into weeping and tears.

“All this time I had never allowed myself to grieve for what was happening. I was just taking it in, the horror bashing and crushing me. I never allowed myself to feel sadness for it. I was afraid that if I grieved, then I would become depressed forever, because I saw the symbolism: These birds stand for all that is being lost in the world. They are a representation of humanity’s destruction of the living environment, the living world.”

As Jordan comforted the dying albatrosses of Midway Atoll, he had an insight that he came to see as the heart of his film. “I learned the essential nature of grief,” he says. “And that is, grief is not the same as sadness. Grief is the same as love. Grief is the love we feel for something we are losing.» The love we feel for a being that is suffering, and we can’t do anything about it. That, to me, was a totally liberating experience, because then I could fully feel, I could just let the emotion wash over me. Rather than being a trap door that leads to hell, I discovered that grief is the doorway that leads home. It leads back to our essential connection with life, with the living world, and in that place we have access to our wisdom and our compassion, and we are home.”

Albatross was released last year. It’s by turns tragic and gorgeous, each frame a painterly composition and the whole a work of art that exalts the spirit of life. “The miracle of Albatross to me,” says Rob Mathes, “is how the story is so disturbing to look at, but still has a happy ending. Which is that life prevails—beauty prevails.”

But will they keep prevailing? There are plenty of reasons to despair; one could even come away from Albatross accentuating the negative. Jordan puts his own hope in our capacity to wake up—even the most coal-hearted, plastic-brained folk among us can do it. He cites as evidence none other than Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’s woke miser. As Scrooge’s stinginess is, at bottom, a spiritual problem, so is our despoliation of the planet, Jordan says. “And that problem is simply the disconnect from our hearts, from our essential state of being, which is to be in love with each other and the world. Now, you can say that Ebenezer Scrooge is a fictional character. But Charles Dickens was a genius: He made Scrooge an archetypal character who lives inside of all of us. I have seen him. And I’ve seen that consciousness can change in the blink of an eye.”

Jordan has, for now, stepped back from the troubling subject matter that culminated in Albatross. “I have a sense that there’s never going to be another story that powerful that comes to me and offers itself like that,” he says. “And I’m not even sure I want to be in such a giant project again, at least anytime soon.” “It’s easy to see why,” adds Mark Sloan, the curator. “He really does wear this stuff. It’s not fun for him to be knee-deep in dead albatrosses.”

Mathes, noting the duality of Jordan’s art, the beauty and the sorrow, reports that Jordan is at present focusing on the beauty. “He goes out and does these massive exposures of trees, or the surface of water, with so many pixels it never gets blurry,” he says. “The detail is astounding.”

Jordan himself admits his new project might seem quaint at a time when great forces are arrayed against beauty—not least an art world “driven by conceptual [claptrap] that says beauty is irrelevant.” “Maybe,” Jordan continues, “it’s time to turn unabashedly toward beauty for its own sake, without any artist’s statement or justification, as a way of remembering that we’re all part of an incomprehensible miracle, and the only real response is to fall on our knees in gratitude.”

Jordan considers Albatross a gift to whomever may want it. Watch it at albatrossthefilm.com. Explore his artwork, zooming in and out of the mesmeric patterns at chrisjordan.com.

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