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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A View From The Swamp

Clyde Butcher wades into the Florida wetlands to do more than just capture the view

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At California Polytechnic, Butcher studied architecture, not photography. But he didn’t know how to draw, so he’d build architectural models of his designs and photograph them. He couldn’t afford a camera, so he built himself a pinhole one, bought a box of film and eventually started photographing landscapes for fun. Gradually, his hobby developed into a full-time career.

One of his first forays into public art was with the South Florida Water Management District. The director of the department saw some of Butcher’s work hanging in a West Palm Beach gallery and wanted it for his offices. Butcher did a series of 12 to 15 pictures up to 4x6 feet and that began his long career of working with environmental and governmental groups. Most of the selling he does is in his gallery—he finds getting paid for creating art a difficult concept to grasp so he doesn’t work as a commercial photographer.

He has published several books, and the most recent is entitled America the Beautiful for which he mainly photographed parts of the Northeast, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and California. Butcher spent four months last year shooting the Everglades with plans to turn those images into a book. He estimates that it’s about 70 percent done.

"It’s not as easy as something like Yosemite where the pictures are pretty obvious," he says. "Rocks and pine trees don’t move much."

Heavily influenced by the work of Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston, Butcher works out of a 1,600-square-foot darkroom in one of his two galleries. He uses seven vertical enlargers and a horizontal enlarger capable of handling 4x5- to 12x20-inch negatives. The largest photographs are made with a horizontal enlarger constructed from a 14x20-inch "copy" view camera that Butcher converted into a 12x20.

A View From The Swamp
He carefully washes his large prints using a vertical washer he built, which can handle the largest unrolled prints. Once washed, the photographs are rolled back onto the reel and hung on a clothesline to dry. The developing trays are constructed of Plexiglas. Each tray measures 4x5 feet. For images larger than the trays, a person gets on each side of the tray, and they roll the photograph back and forth to one another. He has experimented with digital, but claims it doesn’t feel right for his kind of photography though he hasn’t totally ruled it out.

A large selection of Butcher’s work can be seen at his Venice Gallery & Studio in Venice, Fla., and at his Big Cypress Gallery, which is surrounded by more than a million acres of national park wetlands and cypress strands of wild Florida. As Butcher and his wife continue to educate people about the Everglades’ delicate ecosystem, they’re also doing their part at home. Exotic pest plants such as melaleuca, Brazilian pepper and Australian pine have invaded natural areas, squeezing out native plants and altering habitats. The Butchers are restoring the habitat around the Big Cypress Gallery with the native plant life originally found there.

Butcher, who counts the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award and a place in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame among his many achievements, says that he only takes one truly great photograph a year. The time it takes to find the right scene, set up and prepare can take months. While the equipment he uses doesn’t allow him to move quickly between locations, he’ll keep his camera set up in the swamp for weeks at a time with no concerns about the weather’s effect on his gear.

"I just put a plastic bag over it," says Butcher. "It’s a view camera. Nothing is going to hurt it. If a person worries about their equipment, they should get out of the business. It’s about art."

To see more of Clyde Butcher's work, visit www.clydebutcher.com.


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