Intolerable Beauty

Both of Chris Jordan’s parents were artists; he grew up around photographs, paintings, and art books. He ended up in law school “for all the wrong reasons,” and soon thereafter developed a sudden passion for photography. Despite his sense that he was headed in the wrong direction, he pursued the law degree anyway, and made photography his hobby. During ten years as a lawyer, he spent all his free time and income on photography. Then, in 2003, he changed paths. The images here are drawn from his Intolerable Beauty series, a photographic statement about American mass consumption.

Jörg Colberg: Your work strikes me as political, since it addresses our culture of consumerism. I imagine that you must have run into some resistance when presenting it. Have people complained?

Chris Jordan: I am frequently surprised by how little negative feedback I get for my criticism of the American way of life. Maybe it is because we all know it is true: that we are living insane lives governed by materialism and greed. Or maybe the lack of resistance is a reflection of the depth of our denial. When I exhibit my work and talk about our rampant consumerism, no one ever seems to think I am talking about them.

Talking to Americans about consumerism is like talking to someone with an alcohol problem. Our culture is in deep denial about what we are doing to our planet, to the people of other nations, and the people of the future. And maybe the biggest tragedy of all is that we are in denial about how our consumer lifestyle is sapping our own spirits. We are slowly killing ourselves, and we all feel it. We know we are somehow getting screwed, that all this stuff isn’t really satisfying, that we have lost something sacred that is related to the very core of our selves. But still we don’t act. Instead we get in our BMWs and drive to our skyscrapers and shuffle our papers for all of the best hours of the best days of the best years of our lives so we can afford our new kitchen remodel.

It is a tragedy beyond belief, happening right here in our own country, under our own noses, to our own selves. I think Americans in the first decade of the twenty-first century will be looked back upon as some of the most spiritually lost people in the history of humankind.

JC: When looking at your work, at times I thought, “This looks very cool.” But then the caption informed me that I was looking at, say, piles of discarded cell phones, and there’s really nothing cool about that. In a sense, you are transforming scenes of waste into photos that possess a strange beauty. How do you deal with this?

CJ: This issue comes up a lot in connection with my work. First, beauty is a powerfully effective tool for drawing viewers into uncomfortable territory. If I took ugly photographs, no one would want to look at them. My hope is to draw the viewer in with the intricate details and colors, and maybe the image will hold their attention while the deeper message seeps in. Many photographers have used beauty in this way. It’s like slipping a note under the castle door.

The strange combination of beauty and horror for me also serves as a potent metaphor for our consumerism. When you stand at a distance, consumerism can look pretty attractive — all the nice shiny cars and houses and clothes and plasma TVs and so on. But when you get up close and look at our overworked dysfunctional families, the waste streams of our products, the wars our greed is fostering, worldwide environmental degradation, toxic metals in the breast milk of Eskimo women, birth defects in the children of the mothers who assemble our electronics in China, then you start to see that our consumer lifestyle is not so pretty. I try to create this effect in my photos, where it looks like one thing from a distance and then up close you realize it is something else.

JC: What do you say to someone who argues that you are actually contributing to some sort of high-level consumerism by creating art commodities?

CJ: I wish I could wag my finger self-righteously about everyone else’s consumerism, but it doesn’t take much self-reflection to realize I’m right in there myself. Not only do I benefit in a hundred ways from our consumer society every day, but my artwork is a direct part of it, and that is how I make my living. My printing process requires rolls of paper, gallons of ink, electricity, and so on. When I drive or fly somewhere to talk about my work, I contribute to the global warming that I am trying to fight against. And despite my efforts, sometimes I cannot resist buying cool stuff. Those new iPods are bitchin’ and I want one. One thing I try to do is look at our consumer society from within, instead of preaching as if I were an outsider. One alcoholic in a family of alcoholics can speak up, as long as they don’t do it in a finger-pointing kind of way.

JC: Somewhere I saw somebody complaining that some of the materials in the Intolerable Beauty series looked like they were arranged in patterns. When I saw that I thought, so what? Even if that is true, does it take away anything from the actual point made? But some people would argue that there’s a problem with that.

CJ: Art photography today is more like painting than the traditional version of photography, which people believed represented reality. It is an interesting issue, because photography actually never has represented reality; it always has been a multilayered illusion with built-in prejudices and viewpoints. But the illusion of objectivity used to be more convincing. And with the advent of seamless digital manipulation, now even the most convincingly straight photographs can be suspect.

My own direction lately is to try to get away from making my work about depicting things objectively. Part of the issue for me is that our consumerism is so immense and complex that it is hard to represent it by any means, photographically or otherwise. So I am looking to evoke the tools of poetry and literature — symbolism, metaphor, and the unconscious — to try to push the message beyond straight photography. The later images in my Intolerable Beauty series, the cell phones for example, were set up and arranged like installations with these intentions in mind. The new series I am working on goes a step further, into pure conceptual images that aren’t even made with a camera. In one, for example, I have assembled a huge composite image made of hundreds of thousands of copies of one tiny photograph of a Jeep that I downloaded from a website. I am not sure what to call the twelve-foot-high print, but it definitely is not a photograph in any traditional sense.

JC: I see your work as a fine example of how photographers can try to change behavior. Was that a conscious decision?

CJ: When I decided in 2003 to commit to photography full time, I had no idea my work would eventually take on an activist aspect. At the time I was exploring industrial yards, and I kept coming across these huge piles of garbage. Initially I photographed them just for their color, and then one day a friend was over at my studio looking at a print of a trash pile. He commented that the photo was like a macabre portrait of America, and that was the “aha” moment that started me down the path that I’m still on. Since then I have studied consumerism, read many books on the subject, and talked to people all over the world about it. The more I learn, the more alarmed I become about the enormity of the problem.

I also have come to realize how far into the trance I had fallen myself. But I found a path that seems to be taking me to a more connected life, so maybe I can do something to help others turn that way. In the long run, that might be the message I care the most about passing along: To get out of the insane money-driven consumer matrix we have enslaved ourselves in, you don’t have to be a saint or an altruist or even care about saving the environment at all. You can do it for the purely selfish reason that you want to save your own soul. And if my work would inspire just one person to make the leap, that would be worth as much to me as all of the gallery shows and art-world accolades I could imagine.

Chris Jordan is an artist based in Seattle, Washington. Many of Jordan’s works are created from photographs of garbage and mass consumption, a serendipitous technique which started when he visited an industrial yard to look at patterns of color and order. Jordan uses everyday commonalities such as a plastic cup and defines the blind unawareness involved in American consumerism. His work, while often unsettling, is a bold message about unconscious behaviors in our everyday lives, leaving it to the viewer to draw conclusions about the inevitable consequences which will arise from our habits. His collections include Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption, In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster, Running The Numbers I: An American Self Portrait, Running the Numbers II: Portraits of global mass culture, and Midway: Message from the Gyre.