Crushed cars #2 by Chris Jordan, Tacoma 2004 (44 x 62") From Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003 – 2005)
Photo by Chris Jordan

Our Intolerable, Heartbreaking Waste

In a profoundly visceral way, local photographer Chris Jordan shows us the environmental impact we're having near and far.

It was luscious, brilliant, sometimes unexpected color that initially attracted photographic artist Chris Jordan. How moss hung from old pipes in some alleyway. Or the way downtown Seattle’s neon reflected in a puddle, post-rain.

“Complex and beautiful color,” Jordan says. “And then I found the equivalent of a Monet painting in giant piles of garbage.”


Wall of Drums by Chris Jordan. Seattle 2003 (44 x 56”) From Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003 – 2005)
Photo by Chris Jordan

He turned his lens onto the mosaic of large piles of discarded glass bottles. Or to swirly patterns formed in the heaps of old circuit boards. He saw sculpture in sawdust. He framed the architecture of stacks of crushed cars.

The images formed Jordan’s first project, Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption. It was almost too pretty for an artist intent on showing our human footprint on our world.

For his second project, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, Jordan figures out a way to communicate statistics too unfathomable for our brains: The number of birds that die from pesticide exposure; the number of pieces of junk mail that are printed, shipped, delivered and thrown out. On the Web, the work is shown as moving videos. Live, the huge panels look like one image from far away until you get up close and realize that the forest you’re looking at really is made out of cigarette butts.

“It tricks viewers into facing the enormity of our collective mass consumption,” Jordan says.

Collective mass consumption, but not individual culpability, which is what the artist communicates in his most current and most heartbreaking work.

Midway: Message from the Gyre (2009 – Current)
Photo by Chris Jordan

Midway: Message from the Gyre takes us to Midway Atoll, a 2.4-square mile island in the North Pacific where albatross chicks die from eating plastic. Their parents mistake bits and shards of plastic floating in the ocean for food and feed them to their young. “The limit of the ‘Running the Numbers’ series was its ability to communicate feeling. I always had this desire to go further, to go deeper, to show a visceral experience of our mass consumption,” he explains.

A MIDWAY documentary is in the works, its title reflecting both an actual physical location as well as time. “We’re halfway to our own destruction,” Jordan says. “We’re midway between our mistakes and the unwritten potential of our future.”

Cigarette Butts by Chris Jordan, 2013 (60 x 72”) From Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait (2006 - Current)
Photo by Chris Jordan

Depicts 139,000 cigarette butts, equal to the number of cigarettes that are smoked and discarded every 15 seconds in the U.S. Cigarette butts are the No. 1 item found in America’s public spaces including parks, beaches, waterways, and urban environments. This form of litter has far-reaching impacts on the environment: littered butts leach numerous toxic chemicals and carcinogens, contaminate water sources, and poison wildlife. The filters are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that does not biodegrade.

Cigarette Butts, 2013 60 x 72” From Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait (2006 - Current)
Photo by Chris Jordan
  • Chris Jordan

    Chris Jordan’s work often focuses on mass consumption and garbage. His current project is MIDWAY, which looks at the lives and the harrowing deaths of albatross chicks on an island way out in the Pacific.