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All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Chris Jordan, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles | Image Permalink

The Age of Impossible Numbers

By Greg Boustead / February 11, 2010

The human brain is poorly equipped for comprehending massive quantities. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; large numbers are relatively new features of our mental landscapes. Thousands, millions, billions, and recently trillions—once reserved for describing cosmic distances of faraway galaxies—have been brought down to Earth in terms of the national deficits we accrue, the bytes of information we clock, and critically, the stuff we consume. But how to wrap one’s head around such unfathomable figures in a meaningful way? In Running the Numbers, photographer Chris Jordan attempts to convey the vastness of modern consumption by breaking down annual statistics into more graspable quantities depicted by clever visualizations made of individual objects or groups of objects that he photographs. The 106,000 aluminum cans consumed in the US every 30 seconds, for instance, become the individual dots of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. “There’s a disconnect that happens when we assume we know what we’re talking about when we talk about hundreds of millions of plastic bottles,” Jordan says. “I’m trying to translate these numbers from the deadening language of statistics into a visual language that allows some kind of comprehension.”

Containers
38,000

The number of shipping containers that pass through American ports every 12 hours.

Containers (Detail)
38,000

A zoomed-in perspective reveals the character of the containers, each individually photographed by Jordan before being arranged into the graphic patchwork.

Cans Seurat
106,000

The number of aluminum cans used in the US every 30 seconds.

Cans Seurat (Detail)
106,000

After photographing separate stacks of cans in his studio, Jordan used software to form a mosaic that references the pointillism of Georges-Pierre Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Cell Phones (Detail)
426,000

The number of cell phones retired in the US every day.

Cell Phones (Full)
426,000

Taking in the entire piece, the roughly half million phones fade into tiny specks reminiscent of the snowy noise of an empty television channel.

Gyre
2.4 Million

The number of pieces of plastic in this mosaic, equal to the pounds of plastic that enter the world’s oceans each day.

Gyre (Detail 1)
2.4 Million

Last year, Jordan traveled to the Midway Islands, a string of remote atolls in the midst of what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a partially suspended mass of mostly plastic in the North Pacific Ocean approximately twice the size of Texas.

Gyre (Detail 2)
2.4 Million

Charles Moore, an oceanographer and racing boat captain, was the first to encounter the garbage patch in 1997. Since then, he’s returned to the area regularly to conduct tests and collect some of the debris with massive nets trawling from his boat. All of the plastic used in this mosaic came from those missions.

Gyre (Detail 3)
2.4 Million

The staggering realization, according to Jordan, is that “the vast majority of these millions of pounds of plastic that make their way into the ocean have been used only once.”

Gyre (Detail 4)
2.4 Million

Approximately one-third of Midway Islands’ resident Laysan Albatross chicks die as a result of consuming the floating plastic debris, which the birds mistake for bait fish.

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