Friday, May 18, 2007

Visualizing Statistics

Seattle photographer Chris Jordan has an interesting project. He calls it Running the Numbers, and it is a unique and striking exercise in visualizing some of the more extreme statistics that define American life. Here is his own description from his Web site:

This new series looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, 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.

Given the scale of the results, the process of assembly must require an inordinate amount of time (and therefore patience); but the results certainly justify the dedication and effort. There are quite a few of those results on the Web page, which means that it takes some time for the page to load. Also, Jordan emphasizes that these images have their greatest impact when viewed at their original scale. However, since this currently entails a trip to Seattle, I am glad that he has provided an opportunity to get an initial feel for what he has done. My favorite is what he did with those 106,000 aluminum cans: He basically adapted the pointillist style of Seurat's "Grande Jatte," reproducing Seurat's canvas by using the colors of the cans as his "points." Since I never really appreciated the original until I was standing in front of it at the Art Institute of Chicago, this is the image that I most want to see at scale; and, alas, no trip to Seattle is currently in the cards!

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