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."
During a road trip with his wife, Niki, he began to truly see Florida. They had pulled over at a road stop with a shop. While admiring the plastic gators and other kitschy tourist stuff, the owner told Butcher there was a boardwalk out back for visitors to check out the woods. Not quite ready to wade into the swamp, the woods pulled him in. They reminded him of the California Redwoods with which he was familiar, having spent most of his life in Northern California since attending California Polytechnic State University in 1960. Around that same time, Butcher met Oscar Thompson, a photographer out of Fort Myers, who started showing him slides of Big Cypress. One day, he hopped into a four-wheel drive with Thompson and began "walking into the swamp" to take pictures.
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."
In Big Cypress, where he lives, there’s no farming or housing development. The area basically looks the way it did a thousand years ago, which is why he retreated there in the first place. But he has noticed some alarming weather-pattern changes over the years and he thinks it’s because of the development taking place along the eastern coast of Florida. He’s also seeing more birds in and around the wetlands because he says it’s the only place left where they can find food. Today, half of south Florida’s original wetland areas no longer exist, and the numbers of wading birds, like egrets and herons, have been reduced by 90 percent. Entire populations of animals, including the manatee, Miami blackheaded snake and Florida panther, are at risk of extinction. With his black-and-white Florida landscapes continuing to sell and gain praise, Butcher has brought some much-needed attention to the environmental issues facing his state.
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.
"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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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.
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.