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A Q&A With Photographer Chris Jordan
by Roger Richards

“Chris Jordan's large-scale color photographs portray the detritus of American consumption. Gaining access to some of the country's largest industrial waste facilities, Jordan photographs the refuse of consumer culture (e.g., diodes, cell phone chargers, cigarette butts, circuit boards) on an immense scale. Spanning up to ten feet wide, Jordan's prints are at once abstract and detailed.” From the intro to Chris Jordan’s recent show at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York.

Q: You made your living as a lawyer for several years. Why did you give it up to become a photographer?

During the ten years I worked in the legal business, my heart was always in my photography. I tried to do both, but each one leaked into the other; my legal career suffered and I was perpetually frustrated at not having enough time to photograph. My friends encouraged me to commit myself to what I love, but my fear of failure kept me stuck. As I approached forty I became aware of a new kind of fear—the fear of not living my life—and that motivated me to finally make the move.
Cell phones #2, Atlanta 2005 -- 44"x90"  © Chris Jordan

Cell phones #2, Atlanta 2005 -- 44"x90"

Q: How did you get into photography?

A: My Dad is a photographic collector and Mom is a professional watercolorist, so I absorbed an interest in art from early on. But as an adult I think I got into photography as a means of escape. In my late twenties I was in bad shape emotionally—lonely, isolated, stuck in the wrong career and in an unhealthy marriage. Photography was a private place I could go and create something beautiful that was truly mine, with no compromise. I funneled my passion that way and developed a kind of secret relationship with photography, almost as if I were having an affair or visiting a forbidden church or something. The rest of my life was stuck in a rut but I had this one way I could do something that felt more personal and sacred.
Cigarette butts, 2005 -- 5 feet x 10 feet © Chris Jordan

Cigarette butts, 2005 -- 5 feet x 10 feet

Q: Tell us a little about your work and the motivations behind it.

A: My current project is motivated in large part by the alarm I feel about where our society is headed. I think American culture has gone over to the “dark side”; collectively we have given in to greed and made the gaining of wealth our cultural priority. This comes at the expense of what some people hold most sacred: our connectedness to ourselves, to each other and to our planet. It frightens me, and yet I still hold out hope, because for awhile I lost my own soul to the seduction of consumer culture and somehow I found my way to a more fulfilling life. Now through this body of work I am seeking a way to connect with others around this issue. It is tricky though because I know from my own experience that when you’re stuck in that money-driven place, no amount of preaching or finger-wagging will reach you; to make it in, my message has to be more subtle and respectful. I know I still have a huge amount to learn about using photography as a persuasive tool; so far I think I’ve just scratched the surface of its potential that way.
E-waste, New Orleans 2005 -- 44"x57" © Chris Jordan

E-waste, New Orleans 2005 -- 44"x57"

Q: The images you present in galleries are as large scale prints. Why?

A: This is the first project I have printed large; in my previous work I have preferred the more intimate feel of small prints. But with this body of work the size of the prints carries part of the message—the consumerism issue is huge and complex and overwhelming, and I want the prints to feel that way.
Crushed cars #2, Tacoma 2004 -- 44"x62" © Chris Jordan

Crushed cars #2, Tacoma 2004 -- 44"x62"

Q: Are there any photographers who you would call influential to your work?

A: Andreas Gursky is a primary influence currently; he has an amazing eye for color and visual complexity. And Richard Misrach is a model of the consummate artist on several levels for me. But I think my main artistic influence is actually music. I’ve played jazz piano ever since I was a kid, and music has always been a huge part of my life. I view photography and musicianship as being parallel in many ways-- fundamentally they both are about showing up with deep attention and pulling something meaningful out of a given moment. For me, color photography is to the eyes what jazz is to the ears; they are just different languages for expressing the same experience.
Cell phone chargers, Atlanta 2004 -- 44"x66" © Chris Jordan

Cell phone chargers, Atlanta 2004 -- 44"x66"

Q: What are the tools you use and describe your work process.

A: I have been using view cameras for years, but I still feel like a novice when it comes to the technical side of photography. There are so many ways to mess up with an 8x10 camera that I frequently am amazed to get home and find that the image I intended is actually there on my film. I drum-scan my film and print the images digitally on my Epson 9800. It’s great having my own printing studio because I can do my own digital imaging and proofing, which to me is an essential part of making quality prints.
e-Bank, Tacoma 2004 -- 44"x59" © Chris Jordan

e-Bank, Tacoma 2004 -- 44"x59"

Q: What have the last few months been like since your work was ‘discovered’?

A: The last few months have been very different from what I expected. I have always envied famous people and craved to be one of the “chosen ones,” believing that getting all that attention would bring a sense of wellbeing, security and connectedness. But it has turned out instead to be fatiguing and filled with anxiety. I feel exhausted and emotionally drained right now, like I need to sleep for about a month to recover my energy. All of the attention does have a positive aspect to it; it feels good to have an audience for my work, and to be making a living doing my photography. But now I know that being in the spotlight is not itself a rewarding experience; it is more like a symptom that I need to deal with more carefully from now on. I am glad to have learned this early on, and to be getting back to what does bring me joy: the creative process of making and printing new photographs.
New Car Lot, Tacoma 2004 -- 13"x 83" © Chris Jordan

New Car Lot, Tacoma 2004 -- 13"x 83"

Q: What are you planning on doing next?

A: Most of my best photographs have happened as spontaneous events that I didn’t anticipated before finding them, so I try to make a discipline out of not getting too much in my head and deciding in advance where the work is going next. I do know that I want to stick with the consumerism theme, take it deeper somehow, darker and more intense. But I won’t know exactly what that means until it happens in front of me; then hopefully I’ll recognize it, and not commit any grievous blunders with the camera.
Car Junkyard, Vancouver, Wash. 2004 -- 24"x165" © Chris Jordan

Car Junkyard, Vancouver, Wash. 2004 -- 24"x165"

To see more of Chris Jordan's work, visit his Web site at www.chrisjordan.com.

Roger Richards is the Editor and Publisher of The Digital Filmmaker, and Multimedia Editor/Producer at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. Richards now produces video essays and digital short films for the Web, as well as working on documentary photography projects. He began his photojournalism career in 1979, focusing on political and social themes in the Caribbean, the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua and then joining the Gamma Liaison photo agency in 1988. Based in Miami and then Europe, his work with the agency included the US invasion of Panama, political upheaval in Haiti, civil war in Croatia and the siege of Sarajevo. He is a former Associated Press photo bureau chief in Bogotá, Colombia, and a staff photographer at the Washington Times in Washington, DC, from 1997-2000. He is the recipient of numerous awards from the National Press Photographers' Association, the White House News Photographers' Association, Pictures of the Year International, the Society of Newspaper Design, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Virginia News Photographers Association. He became a digital filmmaker in 1998, focusing on projects about war in the Balkans. He was awarded the first White House News Photographers' Association sabbatical grant for videojournalism in 2000 and was one of the first graduates of the famous Platypus Workshop that trains photojournalists how to become digital filmmakers and videojournalists. He is now a member of the workshop faculty. 


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