Exhibit gives new meaning to ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’

Bill Thomas, Staff writer

Most people throw away their used water bottles, grocery bags and soda cans. Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan makes art out of them.

Since 2003, Jordan has been drawing attention to the issue of mass consumption with photo exhibits like “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait,” which is currently on display at Wilkes University’s Sordoni Art Gallery, until Dec. 11. An opening reception will be held Sunday Sept. 25 from 12-2 p.m. Admission is free.

Jordan admits he wasn’t always interested in environmentalism.

“For many years I was focused on just pure, aesthetic beauty,” Jordan explained.  “It was a very formal approach, where I was just trying to take beautiful photographs and didn’t really care about the subjects. But I always sensed that the work wasn’t really relevant. That’s what got me started down this path.”

Jordan’s quest for relevance quickly led him to the realization that some issues are harder to illustrate than others. His first attempt, a project entitled “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption,” saw him photographing landfills and recycling plants in an attempt to capture the sheer size of the subject. Jordan found his goal to be easier said than done.

“As I was nearing the end of the ‘Intolerable Beauty’ series, I had the resources and the desire to go anywhere to photograph the scale of our mass consumption,” Jordan said. “But there is no place where you can go that’s like the Grand Canyon of our garbage. It’s all divided up over hundreds of thousands, even millions of separate locations. So I was in this frustrated place as a photographer, because the issue is fundamentally invisible.”

The solution Jordan came up with can be seen in “Running the Numbers.” Rather than traveling to junkyards and photographing isolated images, Jordan stages in-studio photo shoots, taking pictures of trash. He then makes deft use of computer programs like Adobe Photoshop to combine thousands of tiny, but highly detailed photos into huge, elaborate designs.

Some pieces duplicate iconic images. “Cans Seurat,” for example, recreates artist Georges Seurat’s famous 1884 painting “Sunday Afternoon at the Grand Jatte” with 106,000 aluminum cans, the number, according to Jordan, that Americans consume every 30 seconds.

The process is tedious but has its benefits. For one, it allows Jordan to keep count of how many items he’s photographing, thus helping him more accurately represent a statistic. Because every large image is made up of many smaller ones, Jordan believes viewers are drawn in to observe each piece in greater detail.

Jordan hopes his technique will show viewers  the enormity of the issue and make them question their own role in  consumption.

“That’s one of the great powers of art,” Jordan said.” It reaches us where we feel. Statistics alone just can’t get there.”

“Running the Numbers” at Sordoni is free and open to the public daily from 12 – 4:30 p.m. For more information on Chris Jordan, visit www.ChrisJordan.com.