Since 2007, David Liittschwager–a photographer who worked as an assistant to Richard Avedon and now photographs for Smithsonian and National Geographic–has traveled the world with a bright green, stainless steel frame that’s exactly one cubic foot in volume. His mission? To set the cube in some of the richest ecosystems on Earth and document the organisms that pass through the space in 24 hours.
Liittschwager journeyed from a vibrant coral reef in Moorea, French Polynesia, to a burnt patch of shrub land in Table Mountain National Park in South Africa. He placed his so-called “biocube” in the jellyfish-ridden midwaters off the coast of California and in a fig branch in the Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica. The results of this enviable endeavor are collected in his book The World In One Cubic Foot (University of Chicago Press) and are now the subject of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Though one cubic foot might seem like a minuscule portion of our sprawling planet, Liittschwager’s experiments turned up an astounding number of species. In the bay water beneath San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, for example, more than 9,000 organisms passed through the metal lattice over the course of a day. In his photo capturing the wildlife of Monterey Canyon off the California coast, Liittschwager lines up 200 sea creatures, luminescent and translucent, against a black background (according to the Smithsonian, scientists estimate that over three miles of water would have drifted through the biocube). In the Moorea coral reef, a close-up portrait of a Sacaglossan sea slug reveals the creature’s beautiful, tiered wings that look almost like the wings of Monarch butterflies.
In all of his photographs, Liittschwager puts the life forms he documents in front of a plain black or white background, something he picked up from working on Avedon’s “In the American West” series in the mid-1980s. The simple and striking way to visualize a sample of biodiversity in a given region is helpful to scientists, too. As the new exhibition at the Museum of Natural History explores, Liittschwager’s experiments help to uncover species still unknown or unnamed in the scientific world.
Life in One Cubic Foot is now on view at the Focus Gallery of the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.