Our minds have a limited capacity to comprehend really, really big numbers. At least mine does. A million tons of C02 might as well be a zillion. Twelve and a half million dollars spent every hour on the Iraq war might as well be bazillions.

Sometimes we try to fathom the enormities of raw numbers by visualizing them. How often have you heard that something stacked on end would extend to the moon and back?

But that never helps me. I can’t actually comprehend just how many pop cans, or human DNA particles, or safety pins, or Chevy engines or hot dogs would get me to the moon. It’s just a heck of a lot.

Luckily for people like me, Seattle artist Chris Jordan has found a way to put big numbers into perspective.

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Seurat copy whole

Jordan’s large-scale photographs (click on “Running the Numbers” for the latest work) are as beautiful as they are disturbing. Each image portrays a specific quantity of some man-made consumer item — fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes’ worth of paper use in the U.S.); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds’ worth of U.S. consumption); 2.3 million folded prison uniforms (equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005). Sometimes abstract, sometimes pictorial, and often clever twists on familiar images (like the above take on a famous Seurat, made out of a mosaic of 106,000 aluminum cans — the number used in the U.S. every thirty seconds), Jordan’s photographs deal with pressing social concerns: criminal justice, prescription drug abuse, gun crimes, and overflowing landfills. Take a closer look:

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Seurat copy

Zooming in even more, the Pointillism of our times:

Closer view of Seurat copy shows cans

The photos speak for themselves — and speak to a nation burying itself in its own consumer waste. But, it’s also worth reading how Jordan describes his motivations for this project (click on “statement” on his website). Really, to get the full, striking effect, these “American self-portraits” should be viewed in person — they’re appropriately vast — but check the website now and again because Jordan’s adding new images all the time.