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Art From an American Backyard

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Fowlers Toad, Anaxyrus fowleri (left), Praying Mantis, Mantidae

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.

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Top row, from left: Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia fulgida; Horsefly, Tabanidae; Centipede, Chilopoda Middle row, from left: Clematis flower bud, Clematis; Toad, Anaxyrus; Canna lily fruit (dissected), Canna Bottom row, from left: Garden snail shell, Gastropoda; Crow garlic, Allium vineale; Stone fly, Perlidae

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.

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When plants, insects, and small animals catch his eye, White carries them home and photographs them with his iPhone on a white background. After converting the photos to black and white, he adds a filter, aptly named Earlybird. Passerine eggs, Passeriformes (left) Clematis (petals removed), Clematis

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.

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White’s subjects are neither rare nor exotic, at least not in West Jefferson, the small town in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains where he lives. But he wonders whether in 50 years some of the flora or fauna he’s photographed will be endangered or extinct because of climate change. Annual honesty, Lunaria annua (left) Wild grape vine tendril, Vitis

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.”

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Top row, from left: Jack-o’-lantern mushroom, Omphalotus; Eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis; Carolina horse nettle, Solanum carolinense Middle row, from left: Holly seedling, Ilex; Clematis (petals removed), Clematis; Cricket, Rhaphidophoridae Bottom row, from left: Acorn, Quercus; Asteraceae; Common burdock, Arctium minus

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.

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White’s guides on his photographic safaris are his dog, Coco, and his daughter, Virginia, who proudly points out possible subjects. All fauna shown were found dead except the Fowlers toad (top of page); White photographed it quickly before setting it free. Deer mouse, Peromyscus (left) Bottle gourd, Lagenaria

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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