Art From an American Backyard

When Joshua White was growing up in southeastern Indiana, he would lie in his backyard for hours observing ants and june bugs. He encountered the little creatures with a sense of wonder and struggled to understand the mysteries of the natural world. He captured his entomological discoveries in pickle jars, Styrofoam cups, or his hands.

White grew up to become an artist. He recently moved to North Carolina, where he still spends considerable time much as he did in childhood: walking near his house and carefully looking at his surroundings.

What has changed is that he now captures his tiny subjects with a smartphone camera that allows him to interpret them artistically and share them with viewers beyond his backyard.

His lifelong fascination with the natural world is embodied in his project “A Photographic Survey of the American Yard.” Its sepia-toned photographs and design layout resemble the elegant, hand-drawn scientific catalogs of species of the 19th century.

Though Charles Darwin traveled great distances to observe and sketch plants and animals that existed in nearly inaccessible locations, White documents the plants and animals that are abundant in everyday life but are rarely considered noteworthy.

“You don’t have to travel to exotic locations to make an interesting picture,” he contends. “Beauty is around us all the time.”

White is convinced that most of us don’t think often enough about the world we inhabit “or what goes on under our feet.”

The photographs he shares—on Instagram and Tumblr as well as in museums and art galleries—gently demand that attention be paid to beings that are, in many ways, the bedrock of the physical ecosystem.

Though these creatures are often regarded as inconveniences or pests, White’s images ask us to recognize not only that they’re here but also that they’re crucial.

James Estrin is a senior staff photographer for the New York Times. He is also a founder of Lens, the Times‘s photography blog and has been its co-editor since it went online in May 2009.

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