A Conversation with David Liittschwager

one-cubic-footFreelance photographer David Liittschwager worked as an assistant to both Richard Avedon and Mary Ellen Mark. Today Liittschwager lectures and shows his work around the world in both fine art and natural history contexts. He is a contributing photographer to National Geographic, Scientific American, Audubon and other magazines. His photographs have been exhibited at major museums and honored with numerous artistic and environmental awards.

Now based in San Francisco, he’s also a successful book author. In 2012’s A World In One Cubic Foot: Portraits Of Biodiversity, Liittschwager displays the astonishing range of plant and animal life to be found within a tiny space in six different global ecosystems. He’s now adapting his work into Ingage stories that emphasize the close relationships between different species. He recently sat down with Lisa Lytton, Scrollmotion’s senior director of product design, to talk about his work.

Lisa Lytton: You present your natural subjects on a plain white background, which reminds me of Avedon’s “In the American West” series, which I believe you assisted on…

David Liittschwager: People sometimes ask me, why the white background? Nature loves to hide, it hides behind trees, between blades of grass, under dried leaves, in the soil or in the deep sea. I want to really see the creature. So I put the creature in front of a plain background to make a formal portrait of it. That allows you to see the creature as an individual.

Lisa: What I love about your work is that you talk about these creatures as individuals and you’re viewing them with their own unique personalities. If you want people to care about these animals, you can’t preach that into somebody. They have to want to preserve these creatures and storytelling is a great way to do that.

David: You can say the word storytelling is overused. But it’s accurate—when you present the material with a narrative, people figure it out on their own. They don’t have to be talked at. We just tell them a story rather than preaching at them.

Lisa: You’re starting to use Ingage on iPad to tell these stories.

David: I love the idea that on Ingage, you can gather all of these elements and make something quickly that otherwise would have taken days and days to put together. To make a slide show or presentation the old fashioned way, you couldn’t use as many different elements.


In my octopus story, the thing I care about the most is the still picture. But I love being able to add little videos showing how the creature moves. And then by setting them to a little tango music, and a bit of serious anthropomorphism, it ends up quite entertaining.

Then you can share the fact of how they keep track of all eight of their legs—it’s a testament to how complicated their neural network is. Maybe that neural network is where an embodied intelligence comes from, because their brain is often only about the size of a pea. On iPad the story gets richer because you’re able to include all those extra elements.

Lisa: In your book most of the creatures are tiny, even microscopic. It’s exciting to get down to that level. There’s a tendency to equate small things with unimportant things. But when I’m able to see the detail in them I can regard them as bigger things.

David: In our One Cubic Foot project you see that most of the diversity of life is less than half an inch in size. And so, when you go inside this cube there can be lots of creatures in that smaller scale. The camera lens is our way into that small world. If there is such a thing as the mutual regard between an ant and the camera lens, it always makes me smile to try and figure out how to do that.

Lisa: And now you’re using iPad to display that cubic-foot world.

David: An iPad is about the size of a 12” x 12” square. If you have an iPad on your lap or you have it set up on a table in a stand, it’s the approximate scale that we’re talking. So you can really get a lot of critters in there.

Lisa: Your Ingage stories are readymade for education, it seems like. By democratizing the content you can make it accessible to kids and teachers and groups that are doing their own kind of backyard exploration.

David: I’ve been working with the Smithsonian and the Seneca Park Zoo, and at both of those institutions, part of their mission is conservation through education. I’ve also worked with Nature Bridge which is a nonprofit that does educational programming to fulfill science requirements for elementary and middle schools.

For all these groups, I want to tell them a couple of my stories on Ingage so that they can go out and do this themselves. They can find a spot to look at their own one cubic foot some place. They can figure out where in their backyard or neighborhood to put their green cube to get the highest diversity, the greatest number of different kinds of creatures. They can place their cube then sit back and watch what really happens in it. (my cube is green, any color will do except camouflage)

Lisa: Ingage is letting you share your existing content in different ways.

David: Exactly. I see that the One Cubic Foot book is about to go out print—just 400 copies left. At some point the book is going to be inaccessible and I still want to think this work has a life. Ingage is a good way to do that. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, and it’s updatable. You can add new things to it without it costing a lot or the need to hire a specialist to do something that can be quite complicated.

Lisa: You can make a story right now in twenty minutes, you could Airdrop it to me. And if you see a typo or want to switch out a picture, you can update it, boom, you have it. Meanwhile, what’s next, David—another book?

David: This One Cubic Foot thing, it has a life, you know. We just did one in Madagascar. We’re going to do another one next January to show a different time of year.

Lisa: Wrapping up, how would you summarize your artistic process?

David: I go out in the world and find something interesting. Then I bring it back to share it with everyone. That’s what I do.

Go here to see David’s Ingage story, One Cubic Foot.