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David Liittschwager (USA)

A World in One Cubic Foot


“A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.”
—E. O. Wilson

This project started with a question: How much life can be found in a small piece of the world—in just one cubic foot—over the course of an ordinary day? A cube seemed the right size and shape. You could hold it in your lap or get your arms around it. If you examined and photographed the complex life it held, what would that life look like?

The imagined cube became a frame made of quarter-inch stainless steel rods. Its design had to be simple but adaptable. I also used a miniature photo studio that I could travel with and set up in dissimilar terrains. I wanted to photograph, as precisely and faithfully as possible, every creature I found inside the cube during one day. The poet Wendell Berry wrote in his foreword to my first co-authored book, Here Today: Portraits of Our Vanishing Species (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991): “This intense concentration upon the appearance of the creature itself is, to begin with, a plea. It is a way of saying, Look! Look! See how fearfully and wonderfully this creature is made. See how beautifully the feathers, or the scales,or the short smooth hairs are laid together. See the gloss of live intelligence in this eye, and in this one. If it did not exist, you could not imagine it. Since it does exist, please do not neglect to imagine it.”

I want viewers to see the microcosms that the cubes revealed in faraway places, then imagine a similar universe in one cubic foot of their own backyard, a nearby park, or a creek.

What I have learned so far:

There is always more. The fact is, I have never finished any of the cubes.

I am no more separate from nature than my next breath.

I am an animal.

You are where you come from.

Most of the diversity of life is small.

Even small places matter.

Everything is connected to everything else.

I don’t find myself, or a deer, any more magnificently made than a beetle or a shrimp.

David Liittschwager


David Liittschwager is a contributing photographer to National Geographic and other magazines. He received his training in photography while assisting Richard Avedon in New York from 1984 through 1986. His photographs have been exhibited in many museums, including the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Marian Koshland Science Museum of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.; Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii; and California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco.In 1997, he co-produced the Emmy Award-winning National Geographic television special “America’s Endangered Species: Don’t Say Goodbye.”

He oversaw production of the exhibition catalogues Skulls (2014) and X-Ray Ichthyology: The Structure of Fishes (2002) for the California Academy of Sciences. Liittschwager’s books, in collaboration with Susan Middleton, include Here Today (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991); Witness (San Francisco:Chronicle Books, 1994); Remains of a Rainbow (Washington, D.C.:National Geographic, 2001); and Archipelago (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2005).

He is the recipient of numerous awards, including theEndangered Species Coalition’s Champion Award for Education and Outreach and a Biodiversity Leadership Award from the Bay &Paul Foundations. In 2008, Liittschwager received a World PressPhoto award for his 2007 article on marine microfauna in National Geographic. The David Brower Center featured him in their 2011 Art/Act Exhibition. The Zoological Society of London awarded the 2012 Thomson Reuters/Zoological Record Award for Communicating Zoology to his project A World in One Cubic Foot: Portraits of Biodiversity.

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