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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Chris Jordan

Wow—talk about photo-illustration!

Any idea what this is?

Over the past few days we've had a few posts about the differences between photojournalism and manipulated photographs, with manipulated photographs claimed to qualify as photo-illustration. That might actually shortchange photo-illustration pretty severely. Real photo-illustration can be far more than an ordinary photograph with a few power lines removed—it can be conceptual, imaginitive, abstract, decorative—and powerful. All those descriptives apply to Chris Jordan's American Self-Portrait project.

One more description applies—"statistical." Jordan's project makes statistics visible. "Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing," he writes, "making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 426,000 cell phones retired every day. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs."

Here's a detail, at close to actual size if you click on it to enlarge it, of the picture at the top. It—the top picture—represents 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the U.S. every five seconds.

Note that Jordan also says, "My only caveat about this series is that the prints must be seen in person to be experienced the way they are intended." Which must surely be true—"Plastic Bags, 2007" in the original is 60x72 inches. Still, I think they already have a pretty powerful impact at monitor size. Cool stuff.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, thanks to Stephen Bartlett


Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Absolutely jaw-droppping (and gut-turning) photo illustrations.

Thank you for this.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Dave Sailer said...

Data! Images! Statistics! Omygod!

For anyone who hasn't encountered Edward Tufte, this is a good time. There is a good (free) story on (see

Mr. Tufte, of course, also has his own web site, where you can view some of his posters and get more information on his books. (

One of the most visually dramatic items I have ever seen is Tufte's representation of Napoleon's campaign through Russia. No, not a photo, but definitely a statistical representation of reality. And enough to make one weep these many decades later. (

Dave Sailer

11:12 AM  
Blogger Chris Combs said...

I posted an entry about Chris Jordan about a month and a half ago, and was surprised to discover his work again while flipping through the magazine "Orion" in a bookstore. Very detailed reproduction of some mind-blowing pictures.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Thomas D. said...

Amazing! Thanks for guiding me to those images! Decorative and provoking. I want one of those on my wall!

2:36 PM  
Blogger J. D. Ramsey said...


Why are you calling photographs that have something cloned out (is that the only "sin" that gets a photo re-cast as something else?) a photo illustration? You've now said that several times recently and I don't get it. It's one thing for a photojournalist or a documentary photographer to manipulate a photo and thereby misrepresent what it is (and I still wouldn't call that person a photo illustrator). And quite another to suggest that a fine art photographer who, as part of his effort to better communicate his vision, clones out a telephone pole, is something other than a photographer. Enhancing a photograph in that manner doesn't make the picture a photo illustration anymore than Ansel Adams' distortion of reality in the way he processed or printed his photos did. Maybe you explained your position somewhere and I missed it, but I find this insistence on describing a photo as something other than what it is because the artist manipulated it troubling.

J. D. Ramsey

11:42 PM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

Hits you like a ton of bricks. The way Edward Burtinsky's work does.

426,000 retired cell phones per DAY? I have had 2 in my life and still own the second one. Have we gone mad?

As for guns, I heard the President of the Gun Owners Assoc of America (I think that was the name) interviewed last night. He asserted that declaring schools as gun-free zones has made them more dangerous. If more teachers and students were packing, they could shoot the nutcases before they got too far in their shooting spree.

Remember that guy in Dr. Strangelove who was worried about what they're putting in the water? Maybe he was right to worry.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"As for guns, I heard the President of the Gun Owners Assoc of America (I think that was the name) interviewed last night. He asserted that declaring schools as gun-free zones has made them more dangerous. If more teachers and students were packing, they could shoot the nutcases before they got too far in their shooting spree."

I've basically resigned myself to the fact that I live in a gun-crazy country, and that I'm in the minority, and I have to go along with the gun-loving majority, but of all the aspects of gun culture that do have the power to make me crazy, this brain-dead argument is probably the worst. We are already the most heavily armed populace in the world and in history. If being heavily armed could solve gun violence, then we would already have solved it. In fact--big surprise coming up--there is a very good correlation here: fewer guns, fewer gun deaths. More guns, more gun deaths. This isn't advanced logic, but for some reason, in the face of this correlation, the argument that more guns would solve all our gun problems just won't, er, die.

I honestly believed that Columbine would trigger (sorry) change. I'm still amazed and dismayed that it didn't. But then, I thought the same thing after John Hinckley shot Reagan and Brady. This time, I'm going to try my best not to be surprised when the nation faces down the present crisis by doing absolutely nothing.


8:02 AM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

I used to work with a guy that said that we (humans) may just be a failed genetic experiment. There are no guarantees that we'll survive.

I know that a lot of people in the rest of the (civilized) world (I'm in Canada) have always had the feeling that Americans don't care much what we think of them and that's fair enough, of course, why should you? But when it comes to this guns thing, we shake our collective heads. It seems so bizarre. Of course there's insanity all over, it's a basic human trait it seems, but shouldn't you be able to walk around in the open without needing a pistol to protect yourself in the United States, of all places?

8:40 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

I've always liked Chris Jordan's work just as neat-looking pictures. While he definitely applies an artist's eye in his compositions, it strikes me that this was the kind of thing that regularly showed up in illustrated news magazines, e.g. I remember one pic of the "amount of food an American family buys in a year," in the times when photojournalism meant something more than celebrity gossip. Do we now have to call any picture with a meaning deeper than Britney's latest escapade "fine art"?

9:10 AM  
Blogger Chris Combs said...

J.D. - it's pretty clear in context that Mr. Johnston is mocking the common practice of making photographic manipulation more palatable by labeling the resultant images as "photo illustrations." He is hardly condoning the practice.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

There are many different Americas. Many of us value and cherish different aspects of it, different myths and stories about who we are. The America I grew up in, learned about, and value, is enlightened, liberal, secular, based around civic virtue in general and the Constitution in particular. That's not at all how many other Americans see it.

Kevin Philips, arguably the best cultural critic alive and writing today, thinks that we're in the middle of a "disenlightenment." Phillips' most recent book, "American Theocracy," consists of three parts: the first is about the politics of oil, the second about religious revivalism and its roots, and the third about the cult of finance and borrowed money. It's worth buying just to read part I, which is less than 100 pages long. It sets out the reality of Iraq brilliantly. Overall, the book is probably the best dissection of what America is all about since de Tocqueville.

Be sure to get the paperback, which has a new introduction that summarizes what has happened since the book was first published last year.


10:41 AM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

Thanks, Mike. I think I've heard him interviewed. In Canada, so far, we're still blessed with plenty of intelligent news and public affairs radio and TV programs where questions and answers are allowed to be more than 30 seconds long. Not by coincidence they mostly occur on publicly-funded networks; oh, the irony!

I reread my previous post and I think I didn't express myself clearly. I didn't mean to imply that we (foreigners) think that you are all gun nuts. That is obviously not the case. But I think that what marvels me is why there seem to be significant numbers of you (americans) who DO believe that you live in a dangerous place where you need to defend yourselves all the time. It can't be true, but why so do many think it is? It's baffling.

Is it just illusion? Is the NRA lobby really just three companies and 200 guys with a lot of expensive lobbyists? And everyone falls for the con.

And it's not that I am an anti-gun granola-leftie either (to use the stereotype). I know plenty of hunters. I've done target-shooting and I can see the attraction (good training for hand-held photography, imo) but it's the widespread availability of concealed weapons and military assault weapons that really is over the top, as far as I am concerned. Other than soldiers and police, no one needs such weapons.

Maybe people should go to museums more and spend less time watching stupid television.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't patronize Americans that feel they need guns. Its true that, in a purely arms race interpretation of the situation, me getting a gun means that the thug I'm protecting myself from gets a bigger, faster, stronger, harder, longer gun. But 10 minutes south from where I live if you walk into a liquor store it is a very good chance you will either find a young thug holding it up or find him bent over a cop car directly outside the entrance. And on the way back to your car you will pass some people who will genuinely make you fear for either your wallet or your life. You guys may live in Wisconcin or whatever where everyone is above the poverty level and those who don't are farmers, but here in California and in other states with big cities, poverty combined with the cutthroat survivalist economic nature of cities breeds jealousy, greed and therefore crime.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...


Well, I didn't mean to patronize anyone. If the situation that you described is accurate, that is if that happens so often that you feel the need to carry a gun to that liquor store, give up alcohol. No wine is worth getting shot for.

Seriously though, if that really is a common situation, you have far worse problems than guns. But your gun is only useful if you're good with it and if get the jump on the other guy. Big ifs.

How does the liquor store stay in business? And why?

But I apologize because I didn't really intend to go down this tangent this long. This is probably one of those conversations that are not about photography and that others come to this blog to avoid. I'll stop now.

8:44 PM  
Blogger chriscrawfordphoto said...

There's a liquor store in my hometown (Fort Wayne, Indiana) whose employees all carry guns, and they shoot people who try to rob them. For the last decade, EVERY person who has attempted to rob this place has been shot by the employees. They even shot a guy in the back once as he ran out the door with a stolen bottle of booze!

This is no secret. It's on the news everytime someone is shot there. There's a sign on the door that has a picture of a gun and the warning that robbers and thieves will be shot. All the employees wear a T-shirt with a picture of a gun and the warning about shooting robbers.

Yet, the place gets robbed several times a year! Amazing.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Steve Gilllette said...

As an art-school grad, I am quite comfortable with just about any-and-all forms of visual expression. Chris Jordan is hitting on all cylinders: a clear and cogent theme; a varied and intriguing approach to realizing that theme; and something important to say: a theme that effects us all.

And the pictures look great. From a distance, or close up. Great work! Thanks!

10:44 AM  

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