Tuesday, April 1, 2008
A View From The Swamp
Clyde Butcher wades into the Florida wetlands to do more than just capture the viewThis Article Features Photo Zoom
Out in the Florida woods, standing waist-deep in swamp water, is where Clyde Butcher takes pictures. Alongside crocodiles, gators and poisonous snakes, he waits patiently with his 8x10 Deardorff view camera ready for the moment when an image comes together. The celebrated landscape photographer has spent more than 35 years capturing untouched places while exploring his own relationship with nature. With his award-winning black-and-white photographs of the Florida Everglades earning him regular comparisons to Ansel Adams, Butcher’s commitment to preserving this fragile and complicated ecosystem has brought just as much praise.
By displaying much of his work in public spaces, such as museums, airports, libraries and municipal buildings, he has put a face on an endangered area rarely seen by those outside of Florida. Having worked with a long list of environmental groups and government agencies on countless projects, Butcher has made using his art to preserve the Everglades a lifelong undertaking.
His omission of people and animals is intentional, not wanting the viewer to disengage from the beauty of the natural world, which is his focus when creating images. Butcher shoots only in black-and-white, explaining, "Everything in nature is oneness. If it’s all in shades of gray and black, nothing stands out. That tree is no more important than the sky or the water."
After the death of his son in 1986, Butcher retreated to the wilderness and his passion as a preservationist went into full swing. Moving to the middle of the Everglades in the early 1990s, Butcher lives on 13 acres of swamp in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
"When I first started photographing Florida, I was mostly taking pictures of birds and gators. I didn’t understand the beauty of it," Butcher recalls. "In the Everglades, what do you photograph? It’s all chaos. It’s not like El Capitan or Half Dome or the Tetons. In Florida, just figuring out what to photograph is a challenge."
The self-taught photographer shoots big with three Deardorffs (a 5x7, an 8x10 and an 11x14) and a 12x20 Wisner. Butcher’s images are often printed in sizes as large as 5x8 feet, and he’s currently working on a print for an environmental group in which every blade of grass stands out. His reasoning for making big prints is simple. His photographs have to burst with "tack-sharp" detail because he wants viewers to feel like they’re part of the environment he’s capturing.
"I want to see the veins in the leaves," he says.
Butcher photographs in a manner that allows a three-dimensional look to the final print. He points out that, in his better photographs, the center is full of nothing but space. "I try to take pictures that make people feel like they want to walk into them," he says. "I make pictures large enough so that you can’t see them. You have to scan, and the mind puts together what you see. I want people to be drawn in and feel their way through the environment."
The challenge is that his surroundings aren’t exactly large-format friendly. Butcher mainly uses his 5x7 and 8x10 view cameras. When he goes out on a shoot, he tries to stay light, which for him means staying under 50 pounds. Depending on the lens, he uses three or four tripods. If he’s shooting with a long lens, he needs a tripod just to support it. Otherwise, he can get away with three. If he’s in the swamp shooting, he has to be careful to stay away from the mud because it causes his weight to shift, moving the camera around. He’d welcome shooting at ƒ/8, but his reality is more like ƒ/54 or ƒ/68. If he gets a one-minute exposure, he considers that short. Six to 10 minutes is about average.
I want people to be drawn in and feel their way through the environment.
"When I approach a shot, this sounds silly, but I basically point and shoot," Butcher says. "With a wide-angle lens, I can’t see the composition because of the angles the light rays are going in. If you use a long lens, you can see the image because the light rays are a a good angle to the ground glass. But on an 8x10 view camera, using a 110mm, the back element is only two inches from ground glass."
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