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View from the Photo Desk:
A Q&A With Photographer Chris Jordan
Q: You made your living as a lawyer for several years. Why did you give it up to become a photographer?
A: During the 10 years I worked in the legal business, my heart was always in my photography. I tried to do both, but each one leaked into the other; my legal career suffered and I was perpetually frustrated at not having enough time to photograph. My friends encouraged me to commit myself to what I love, but my fear of failure kept me stuck. As I approached 40 I became aware of a new kind of fear - the fear of not living my life - and that motivated me to finally make the move.
Q: How did you get into photography?
A: My Dad is a photographic collector and Mom is a professional watercolorist, so I absorbed an interest in art from early on. But as an adult I think I got into photography as a means of escape. In my late-20s I was in bad shape emotionally - lonely, isolated, stuck in the wrong career and in an unhealthy marriage. Photography was a private place I could go and create something beautiful that was truly mine, with no compromise. I funneled my passion that way and developed a kind of secret relationship with photography, almost as if I were having an affair or visiting a forbidden church or something. The rest of my life was stuck in a rut but I had this one way I could do something that felt more personal and sacred.
Q: Tell us a little about your work and the motivations behind it.
A: My current project is motivated in large part by the alarm I feel about where our society is headed. I think American culture has gone over to the "dark side"; collectively we have given in to greed and made the gaining of wealth our cultural priority. This comes at the expense of what some people hold most sacred: our connectedness to ourselves, to each other and to our planet. It frightens me, and yet I still hold out hope, because for awhile I lost my own soul to the seduction of consumer culture and somehow I found my way to a more fulfilling life. Now through this body of work, I am seeking a way to connect with others around this issue. It is tricky though because I know from my own experience that when you're stuck in that money-driven place, no amount of preaching or finger-wagging will reach you; to make it in, my message has to be more subtle and respectful. I know I still have a huge amount to learn about using photography as a persuasive tool; so far I think I've just scratched the surface of its potential that way.
Q: The images you present in galleries are as large-scale prints. Why?
A: This is the first project I have printed large; in my previous work I have preferred the more intimate feel of small prints. But with this body of work the size of the prints carries part of the message - the consumerism issue is huge and complex and overwhelming, and I want the prints to feel that way.
Q: Are there any photographers who you would call influential to your work?
A: Andreas Gursky is a primary influence currently; he has an amazing eye for color and visual complexity. And Richard Misrach is a model of the consummate artist on several levels for me. But I think my main artistic influence is actually music. I've played jazz piano ever since I was a kid, and music has always been a huge part of my life. I view photography and musicianship as being parallel in many ways - fundamentally, they both are about showing up with deep attention and pulling something meaningful out of a given moment. For me, color photography is to the eyes what jazz is to the ears; they are just different languages for expressing the same experience.
Q: What are the tools you use and describe your work process.
A: I have been using view cameras for years, but I still feel like a novice when it comes to the technical side of photography. There are so many ways to mess up with an 8x10 camera that I frequently am amazed to get home and find that the image I intended is actually there on my film. I drum-scan my film and print the images digitally on my Epson 9800. It's great having my own printing studio because I can do my own digital imaging and proofing, which to me is an essential part of making quality prints.
Q: What have the last few months been like since your work was 'discovered'?
A: The last few months have been very different from what I expected. I have always envied famous people and craved to be one of the "chosen ones," believing that getting all that attention would bring a sense of well-being, security and connectedness. But it has turned out instead to be fatiguing and filled with anxiety. I feel exhausted and emotionally drained right now, like I need to sleep for about a month to recover my energy. All of the attention does have a positive aspect to it; it feels good to have an audience for my work, and to be making a living doing my photography. But now I know that being in the spotlight is not itself a rewarding experience; it is more like a symptom that I need to deal with more carefully from now on. I am glad to have learned this early on, and to be getting back to what does bring me joy: the creative process of making and printing new photographs.
Q: What are you planning on doing next?
A: Most of my best photographs have happened as spontaneous events that I didn't anticipate before finding them, so I try to make a discipline out of not getting too much in my head and deciding in advance where the work is going next. I do know that I want to stick with the consumerism theme, take it deeper somehow, darker and more intense. But I won't know exactly what that means until it happens in front of me; then hopefully I'll recognize it, and not commit any grievous blunders with the camera.
View more of Chris Jordan's work at http://www.chrisjordan.com/.
© Roger Richards
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