Force of life

For someone who’s standing waist-deep in swamp water in the middle of Florida’s Everglades National Park, home to alligators, snakes and God-knows-what-else, Clyde Butcher seems supremely content. As he plants his tripod into the murky water and unloads his trusty, often-repaired and rebuilt vintage 8x10 Deardorff view camera from his battered backpack, he explains, “The swamp is an amazing life force; it’s always growing, creeping, crawling. I don’t think there’s any place like this in the world.”

Butcher, who’s been exploring and photographing the Everglades and what he often calls “hidden Florida” since the mid-1980s, has earned an international following and reputation as one of America’s foremost landscape photographers. He’s won a slew of photography and conservation awards from groups as varied as the North American Nature Photography Association (Lifetime Achievement Award) to the Sierra Club (Ansel Adams Award). His work has been featured in several books and been exhibited around the world.

PBS described his work as “stunning”; ABC News named him “Person of the Week” and called him “one of America’s best-known nature photographers.” His much-admired, sought-after body of large-format black-and-white landscape photography has earned him the title “the Ansel Adams of the Everglades.” Butcher’s limited-edition silver gelatin archival prints sell for $450 to $45,000 from his two Florida-based galleries and his website.

Cayo Costa
© Clyde Butcher

Despite his success and all the accolades, Butcher, 72, admits he’d rather be known as a communicator than an artist. “I’m flattered that some people call me an artist, but what I really want to do with my pictures is communicate nature to people,” Butcher tells me at his Venice, Florida, studio and gallery. “I want my work to inspire people to really look at nature and feel the emotion I felt when I was in the field.”

His hazel eyes light up as he shows off a massive 51x87-inch silver gelatin, black-and-white print of a hauntingly beautiful Everglades scene. “Here’s a good example of why I shoot in black-and-white,” says Butcher as he has me stand in front of the huge print. “Color is a duplication of nature. My black-and-white work is an interpretation.” He explains that black-and-white photography gives all the elements of nature—sky, clouds, water, flowers, trees—the same importance. “Black-and-white brings a oneness to the photograph; everything has the same value.”

“And there’s a reason I make my prints so large,” he adds as he gestures to the Everglades print. “I do that so you can’t see them.” Before I can ask Butcher what he means, he explains, “Because of the size, your eyes have to scan the picture so you can see it like you would in nature; that gives you the feeling of being there. You start looking at the photograph as an experience rather than as a picture.”

Ghost Orchid Twin
© Clyde Butcher

Butcher didn’t always shoot in black-and-white. After studying architecture at California Polytechnic State University and working for an architecture firm, he turned to photography in the 1970s and built up a successful business selling color photographs as wall décor to stores such as Sears, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward. He sold the business and moved to Florida in 1979, where he began selling color photographs of the American West, mostly at street fairs and arts festivals. “People wanted color, and I gave them color,” he explains.

Then tragedy struck and forever changed the photographer’s life. “My 17-year-old son, Ted, was killed by a reckless driver on June 15, 1986,” he says. It was Father’s Day, and it marked a dramatic turning point in Butcher’s personal and professional life. Lost in grief, he admits, “Nothing made any sense any more.” Including his photography.

A few weeks after Ted died, Butcher and his wife, Niki, loaded up their van and drove to Michigan for yet another art show to sell scenic color photographs. “But my heart wasn’t in it anymore,” he says. As he once wrote, “I asked myself where was the beauty in a world where my son could die so senselessly.”

When the show ended he looked at the half-dozen black-and-white photographs of the Everglades he’d captured, the “art shots” that hung at the back of his stand and rarely sold, and had an inspiration. “I knew then what I had to do,” he remembers.

Florida Trail
© Clyde Butcher

A week later, back in Florida, Butcher loaded up his entire inventory of 400,000 color prints, the same prints he’d been selling to support his family, and took them to the Fort Myers dump. “I watched a bulldozer crush them all to bits,” says Butcher. “It was time to start over.”

He bought a bulky 8x10 Deardorff camera and some used lenses, which he lugged into the Everglades near his home at Big Cypress, with a friend lending a hand. “I told him that these pictures were going to be different,” he says. “When he asked how they would be different, I told him I wasn’t sure. I just knew I was supposed to do this.”

When Butcher came across a scene of the late afternoon moon rising over cypress trees in the distance, he felt he had the shot he’d come for. He unpacked the camera and mounted it atop a tripod. When he spotted a single cloud drifting into the scene he waited then released the camera’s shutter at the right moment. But it was jammed. He wedged the shutter open, put another film slide in front of the lens, and held it there for a few seconds. The result, “Moonrise,” is still Butcher’s favorite picture. “It’s been almost 30 years and I’ve been trying to capture a moon shot with that same magic,” confesses Butcher. “The picture was a testament to my son.”

With the success of “Moonrise,” which sold widely, and other black-and-white landscapes, Butcher never looked back. He’s continued exploring and shooting Florida’s Everglades and other seldom-visited, seemingly untouched swamps. He’s also gone farther afield to Montana, Cuba, the Rocky Mountains, and elsewhere. 

“When I was taking color scenic shots I used to calculate how many prints I could sell,” he remembers. “After Ted died I didn’t care whether or not people would buy these new black-and-white pictures. Life is too short not to do what you want to do.” He hasn’t make a color photo since.

Key Biscayne Lighthouse
© Clyde Butcher

Butcher’s work is a family affair. His wife, Niki, accompanies him on his frequent photo expeditions, carrying film holders in her own backpack, and their daughter Jackie helps manage the business and runs a second gallery in the heart of the Everglades that also offers swamp walks to tourists. Butcher maintains several traveling exhibitions of his work that he makes available to galleries and museums. He prefers to self-publish his books and sell prints directly to the public so he can maintain artistic control of his work.

To produce his mural-sized, limited-edition prints, Butcher works out of a 2,200 -square-foot darkroom at his Venice studio. As he takes me into the long darkroom he points out the 4x5-foot developing trays that run down the center. “When we are developing large prints I stand on one side of the sink while my assistant Neal stands on the other to process them. It can take an hour and a half to produce one print.” Butcher confesses that he likes the developing process. “There’s so much creativity in dodging and burning,” he explains. To make the large prints, he uses a 24x36-inch copy camera that he converted into an enlarger.

Although Butcher admits to experimenting with digital cameras, he’s still concerned about the lifespan of digital images. “We have a good idea of how long silver will last; the jury is still out on digital,” he explains. “That’s why collectors still prefer silver.”

If there’s one quality that photographers need, it’s patience, says Butcher. He shows me a gorgeous picture of a beach in Cape San Blas, in Florida’s Panhandle, that he took in 1983. “Niki and I were there from sunrise to sunset for five days waiting for just the right combination of the storm and light on the beach. In all that time I only took two sheets of film with my Deardorff 5x7.” That’s the thing about film, he says, it teaches you how to see.

As he shows me a striking, 60-inch panoramic photograph he took of his wife on location in Montana, which he shot with his iPhone 4, he says, “I like to show this to people to show what is possible. It’s not the camera; it’s the eye that makes the photographer.” His legions of fans would no doubt agree.

Robert Kiener is a writer based in Vermont.