CLYDE BUTCHER THE PHOTOGRAPHER:
To most, photographer Clyde Butcher is known as the 'Ansel Adams of the Everglades:' a man who spends his time capturing powerful black and white images of Florida's incredible and varied wilderness for all to see. To the many who have seen his photographs, which are quickly judged as works of art, Clyde Butcher is known as the artist who helps us see the incredible beauty hidden in Florida's swamps, rivers, uplands and bays.
While Clyde finds the inevitable comparison to Ansel Adams a compliment, he is quick to point out the differences between Ansel Adams' American West photographs. Says Clyde: "In Florida, everything changes overnight. The clouds, the sky, the light. That's what excites me. You don't find something like this anywhere else in the world."
CLYDE BUTCHER THE PRESERVATIONIST
Clyde wants us to see the natural state of Florida, something that was never easy to do, but something that has become more difficult as more and more of it is lost to development. Most everyone has seen the streets of South Beach, the avenues of Disney World, the bleachers of Sea World or the Orange Bowl, but few know of, or have seen, the natural beauty that is Florida's alone. Plunging deep into places most of us have never even paused to look at, Clyde emerges with stark images of the beauty that is uniquely Florida.
Before it is all gone, Clyde Butcher wants you to see our natural State."My goal," he says,"is to let people see Florida and make up their own minds whether they want to keep it or not."
"I've seen over the last 10 years a whole different feeling about Florida" says Clyde."When I first started photographing Florida's wetlands, nobody had much interest in them. There was still an overriding feeling that it was 'just swamp,' to be filled in and built upon. Now people seem to be proud of their state, excited about it and excited about saving it's unique natural beauty."
I first met Clyde Butcher in 1996 at his gallery in the swamp at Ochopee, Florida. Like many before me, I was driving from Naples on the old highway when I caught a glimpse of the simple black and white sign advertising"The Big Cypress Gallery" Strolling inside, I was taken aback at first by the large, stark black and white photographs of a countryside that I had come to see as bright, brilliant and extraordinarily colorful. But, the photographs were awesome and the man himself was mesmerizing. I quickly fell in love with both and resolved to learn more about the photographs and the man behind them.
That chance meeting eventually led to the opportunity to show his work at a new gallery my wife and I were opening in Key Largo and, to the wonderful opportunity to help share Clyde's vision with the many who pass through our gallery. In a way, we've become one of Clyde's missionaries. His work is always on display at The Gallery at Kona Kai and his photographs never fail to bait the casual visitor or serious collector into a conversation about saving some part of our precious state.
Clyde's vision of preserving the naturaI beauty of Florida is contagious. After fishing the Florida Keys flats any number of times with guides Barry Vich and Billy Wert, I began to feel that the beauty of the backcounrty needed to be seen and understood by more than the few lucky enough to fish it. While visitors to the Keys are constantly being shuttled out to "the reef," as far as the bay went, it was simply seen as where the sun disappeared.
I wanted people to understand the fragile beauty that was out there at every turn and on every flat. But, how to do that without turning those same flats into another overcrowded tourist mecca? How to do that while preserving the spawning and fishing grounds and the tranquility that one experiences while poling around a mangrove patch or simply sitting and waiting for the right moment to cast a newly hand tied fly? Clyde and his camera became the obvious answer and our friendship proved enough to entice him out on a backcountry flats boat.
That's when Clyde and I met AI. Like so many, Albert Wells had retired to the Florida Keys with the requisite all purpose boat; too much draft for the shallowest of flats and not enough for the challenges of the ocean outside the reef. But just enough to carry the not so small Clyde, his 100+ pounds of equipment and me.
Al had wandered into the gallery one afternoon when Clyde was visiting. Admiring the photographs on the wall was enough to get Al's heart beating faster, but meeting Clyde was all it took for Al to offer his boat and his days to help search the backcountry bays for the magic that only Clyde could
So, not so early one morning, we loaded up the boat and left the docks at Kona Kai for a photographic expedition with the photographer turned artist, Clyde Butcher. We weren't looking for fish, we were looking for something even more elusive. Clyde was aboard to find it. Like many of us who live here in paradise, AI had been out on the bay many times before and had marked in his mind his favorite spots. We visited them, but it was usually along the way that Clyde saw more than we did. Once, in the middle of a wide open stretch of bay he shouted to Al to stop the engine.The boat quickly came off plane and soon was dead calm in the center of a large bay. Far off in the distance a thundercloud was forming. We waited. Clyde said nothing. Then quietly he began setting up his camera. It's big and looks like the one's you see in those old photos taken around the time of the American Civil War. Clyde managed to get the tripod set-up on the deck over the center console. He asked me to reach into a large black bag he had brought aboard for a "sheet" of film. Picking it up, I was amazed to discover it weighed as much as a tackle box. It was only one negative; although at 8 by 10 inches it was larger than any film I was accustomed to.
Clyde slid the film into the camera and told us not to move. Another boat went by at the far end of the bay. We waved and waited. Long after it's wake had rocked past us, Clyde buried his head under a robe of black cloth that hung off the back of his camera. The camera was pointing ahead; at what, AI and I were not sure. Al started to say something, but Clyde's muffled voice ordered us to be still and silent. A few minutes later we heard the click of the camem's shutter and Clyde reappeared. The image was captured. It wasn't until some weeks later that we saw it. Clyde had titled it "Florida Bay #3." It speaks reams about the tranquil beauty of what most of us call"the backcountry."
We spent most of the day like that - motoring around until Clyde said "STOP." After that day and many others like it, Clyde said he had enough images for this first photographic excursion into the Florida Keys. He promised there would be others. The result of his work was a January 1998 showing at The Gallery at Kona Kai entitled "Clyde Butcher: The Other Florida Keys." Some 400 people showed up on opening night, when Clyde was signing fund-raising posters of what was to become his most famous shot of Florida Bay: "Little Butternut Key #1."
While many of us bring back images of our experiences out on the Bay, Clyde has the unique vision and ability to capture those images so everyone can share a piece of the beauty and joy that fills our hearts every time we head out from our docks into the bay.
That is the magic that Clyde Butcher brings to everyone who see's his work. His images show us Florida in ways that we could not imagine. The alluring beauty of Florida's west coast in Cayo Costa beach; the vastness of Marjory Stoneman Douglas's "River of Grass," as seen in Ochopee, the haunting beauty of Florida's wetlands in Big Cypress Gallery; or the serenity of the Grand Swamp in Disney Wilderness Preserve. Clyde's message is clear: the stark naturaI beauty of Florida must be preserved for all generations to see - for it is only beauty such as this that renews and enriches our soul and our heart.
THE EARLY YEARS
Some years before, while travelling around Florida, It was a chance stop at Tom Gaskin's Cypress Knee "museum" on Route 27 where Clyde first happened upon the magical intoxication of Florida's natural wetlands. Clyde says of this visit to Gaskin's place: 'lt was really strange. Driving along Florida's rural roads, even being 10 feet away from it, I couldn't see it. Yet, the minute I passed through a couple of trees and got into that swamp, I started getting a feeling for it and really got excited about it." It would not be until almost a decade later that Clyde Butcher, photographic artist, would emerge from those same swamps.
Born in Kansas City in 1942, Clyde graduated with a degree in architecture from California Polytechnic Institute. He married, had two children, and along with a partner developed a very successful commercial photographic printing business in California. That success encouraged Clyde to start another venture, which eventually went bankrupt. It was then that CIyde moved the family to Florida.
Eventually it would be Oscar Thompson, a fifth-generation "swamp-rat," who showed Clyde the vast Everglades wilderness most of us will never know, except through Clyde's photographs. Thompson, who can navigate the sawgrass by the night stars, find panther by the smell of their dung and call gators to him like puppies, became a long time friend who helped Clyde understand the Everglades.
In the Everglades, Clyde found a "world purified of human contact" where he could be alone with his thoughts. Splashed by the sea, swarmed by mosquitoes and standing for hours in driving rain in swamps with alligators swimming by, he has waited for hours for that one perfect moment when the light is just right.
It is Clyde's genius to bring trees and grass into focus as the complex web of life in which we are all enfolded. He doesn't look through the lens to decide on a picture; he waits to sense a spiritual connection, the moment of artistic balance that mirrors the ecosystem itself. Look into any of his photos and you will sense that you are in the presence of the origin of life..
Clyde believes the black and white image removes the distraction of color while emphasizing the unity of the scene and the perfection of light. In his photographs of Gaskin Bay the mangroves walk out into the water with what seems more self assurance than humans possess on land. In these photographs, these life-giving trees stand in for human life. The mangroves are clearly what nature intended: the pioneers, the makers of the islands of Florida Bay.
In each of his photographs, Clyde captures a panorama flawless in detail and impossible to absorb in a single glance. Every strand of grass is deeply etched; the contours of distant clouds recorded in all their dramatic complexity. The overaII effect is that the viewer is put on intimate terms with nature, raw and untouched by man.
A master at capturing nature's whimsy and drama, Clyde's work draws you in, forcing you to explore every detail. Each of his photos is a wilderness trip. Clyde says,"I want you to explore the photograph. In the woods you're scanning nature. That's how I want people to experience my photographs - to scan them; to move around and to experience them."
CLYDE BUTCHER IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
"AIl primeval areas of landscape have the same essence, no matter where they are located," says Clyde. After a decade of photographing Florida, Clyde wanted to express this feeling by reaching beyond the primeval swamps of Florida into other areas. He's chosen to go beyond Florida in order to help show people that there is a unity between all undisturbed naturaI places, whether the peak of a renowned mountain range, a stream-bed in an urban watershed, or a wetland in his beloved Florida.
In 1997, Clyde began photogMphing other areas of the country. He was invited to photogMph in Rocky Mountain National Park. "I spent two weeks as'Artist in Residence.'The rangers kept apologizing for the poor weather, but I thought it was wonderful. Every day brought rolling thunderheads that gave me dMmatic skies and fresh, clean air. What more could I ask for?"
Since then he has photogMphed in Washington's Olympic National Park, Utah's Escalante Canyon, the Smokey Mountains and, most recently, the forests of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic. His images of the Czech countryside will go on exhibit this summer at the National Gallery of the Czech Republic in Prague.
But Clyde's first love is here in Florida. Florida is where his heart is. So, if you happen by a big burly man standing waist deep in the swamp, perched high on a ladder above the sawgMSS, or precariously perched over the center console of a flats boatÑknow that you have seen the artist at work. For Clyde, the swamp, the bay and the hammock have become part of him; without them he would be incomplete.And, just perhaps, without Clyde, our vision of Florida would be incomplete.
From the biography, "Seeing the Light, Wilderness and Salvation: A Photographer's Tale" by Tom Shroder and John Barry.