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The San Francisco Chronicle

Consumer Culture Turns Into Murals of Trash

Laura Thomas

Detail of "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," reproduced with aluminum cans. (Chris Jordan)

The enormity of trash produced by the American consumer culture is so hard to comprehend that we fail to both react emotionally and contemplate what to do about it, Seattle photographer Chris Jordan told a receptive crowd of Bay Area designers this week.

"We are suffering because we have created this culture, this tidal wave of information that pours over us each day," he said. "And there is nowhere you can go and see it or feel it."

Jordan received a standing ovation from 500 people attending the annual breakfast of the Northern California chapter of the International Interior Design Association for a riveting display of photographs illustrating the numbers of aluminum cans, cell phones, office paper, plastic cups and bags and other detritus generated each minute in the United States.

The images, part of Jordan's latest project, "Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait," were an attempt, he said, to take "the dry unfeeling language of data and to translate it into the visual language of feeling."

Tossed out each year: 130 million cell phones. Used each hour: more than 1 million brown paper bags. Used every 5 minutes: 2 million petroleum-based plastic bottles. Produced every eight hours by jets flying across the United States: 11,000 contrails. Used every six hours on those flights, 1 million plastic cups, because, Jordan said, it's illegal to refill your cup on an airline flight. And, he asked, who must have pushed through that piece of legislation?

Jordan photographs items in small stacks or bunches and duplicates the image into a large-scale piece to give a visual scale to each appalling statistic.

He told his audience at the Four Seasons Hotel he really had to struggle to find a way to depict 130 million cell phones. "Would they fill this room or 10 of these rooms?" he asked.

He first showed the cell phones in colorful swirls, but he said he rejected that for a pile of phones to better elicit anxiety from the viewer when confronted with their sheer mass.

Jordan showed the detail he worked from: a flat image of 200 phones, looking as ominous as a pile of dead locusts. The next view zoomed away, showing that pile becoming larger, and then the final, shocking result: an 8-by-5-foot photo image of a gray and white pointillist mass, representing the 426,000 phones thrown out each day.

The images "really hit home with everybody," said IIDA chapter President Terry de la Cuesta. "It was a big topic of conversation all day" with her colleagues who attended from RMW Architecture & Interiors in San Jose, she said.

A former corporate lawyer, Jordan became an Internet sensation in 2007, with the release of "Running the Numbers." His earlier projects, "Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption" and "In Katrina's Wake: Portraits of Loss From an Unnatural Disaster" have traveled to galleries across the country, and he has become a popular speaker. His latest honor: an invitation to take part in the World Economic Forum in Dubai in November.

Jordan told the audience he hated his life as a lawyer because he was self-centered, lonely and angry. "I was a free rider. I didn't even vote. That was for other people," he said.

Even when he quit to spend his time on photography, he was obsessed with developing a personal color theory by shooting piles of rubbish and industrial materials.

"I was escaping life instead of engaging in it," he said.

His change of perspective came when two photographer friends admired his photo of compacted blocks of garbage and dismissed his theory telling him, "Just by luck you have taken a relevant photograph."

Turning his focus on what he calls "the infrastructure of our consumption" has given him a modicum of inner peace, he said.

He showed his version of Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," made with 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used each 30 seconds. He said he had chosen it for its pointillist style, which many of his finished images mimic.

He asked the audience to reflect on the scene of people enjoying a park with "almost no stuff.

"There's a serenity there," he said.

Jordan said his photographs are intended to help people feel the sadness at our cultural loss that causes us to react with depression and hostility. To view them, go to

"The way back to natural joy is to feel these issues that are ugly and anxiety-producing," he said. "Where is our outrage? Where is our anger? We have lost our ability to grieve. Our leaders have told us to go shopping."

Jordan wants to provoke people, not to make them feel shame, he said, "but to give them access to courage and deep wisdom."

De la Cuesta was impressed. "I think people would rather know the truth than hide their eyes. I think this was well-timed."

Before Jordan's speech, the IIDA bestowed its distinguished achievement award to Sausalito architect C. David Robinson, who died this year. Robinson worked on the Yerba Buena Gardens, Charles M. Schulz Museum and the Cliff House.

Also honored was Hank Dunlop, California College of the Arts associate professor of interiors, for his work at building the CCA design curriculum and his ability to inspire students.


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