Clyde Butcher, whose famed photographs of primeval Florida rest upon the patient art of standing in water and muck until the light and the elements arrange themselves into the perfect composition, doesn’t actually seem to do a whole lot of sitting still.
There are the talks, the open houses and book signings at his galleries in Venice and in Ochopee on the Tamiami Trail, the traveling exhibits — there’s one in Sarasota, “Preserving Eden,” featuring photos of Florida, and another, just closed at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana, of American landscapes — and, this week, the grand opening of his third gallery, in Miami’s Coconut Grove.
Always, too, there are new photographic journeys.
Butcher, who works only in black and white, just got back from photographing majestic old oaks in Louisiana and will soon head to the Florida Panhandle to photograph coastal dunes local activists are trying to save from development. This spring and summer, he will work in the Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades and return to his beloved stomping grounds in Big Cypress, and then it’s on to Denali in Alaska, a state he has never visited. That will leave only one state he has never shot in: North Dakota.
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Though he will forever be most closely associated with Florida, the Everglades and the Big Cypress swamp, Butcher has broadened his focus in the past 15 years to the landscapes of California, where he got his start in the 1960s as a hobbyist and commercial photographer, to the rest of the American West, to Hawaii and beyond — daring his own interpretation of vistas in Yosemite National Park that were made into classic images by the photographer he’s most often compared to, Ansel Adams.
At 72, and 35 years after he moved to Florida for the sailing and a fresh start, Butcher is still finding new natural treasures to photograph in his home state, a place he once thought held nothing worth shooting: a massive cypress tree, 53 feet in diameter, on the Santa Fe River, and the state’s oldest tree, on the Lake Wales Ridge, for instance.
Yet no matter how far Butcher ranges, his landscapes retain their visual drama and one quality in common: They are unpeopled, mostly unspoiled, and, in nearly all instances, devoid of wildlife, as well.
“I’m discovering all kinds of things all the time,” Butcher said. “But the only thing I photograph is stuff that hasn’t been touched.”
Thirty years after first lugging a heavy antique view camera deep into the Big Cypress in the marriage of subject and approach that would make his reputation, Clyde Butcher is also trying out something new: a digital camera.
He has rigged a 36.4-megapixel Sony body with a bellows-like attachment that allows him to tilt his favorite wide-angle lenses much like he does with his view camera, allowing him to maintain the exacting control over perspective and focus that characterize his immersive, sweepingly panoramic images.
By no means is he giving up the large-format view camera, Butcher says. But digital has the advantage of easy portability. As he gets older, Butcher can no longer go mucking around in the swamp or hiking Yosemite with 80 pounds of photo equipment strapped to his back.
Making his photographs can mean slogging to a site time and again, sometimes over a period of years, until he’s satisfied with the image. So the ease of mobility of the digital equipment means he expects his famously measured output to increase.
With the camera’s ability to focus very close up, something a view camera cannot offer, Butcher has discovered a new subject — orchids. He has been photographing them at Sarasota’s Selby Botanical Gardens, where his Florida exhibit is hanging.
“It opens up a whole new world for me of photography,” Butcher said of the digital camera. “With large format, it’s taken me 40 years to gather these many images up. It takes several years to get certain scenes. Probably I have 10 years of work left, and I want to shoot a lot more. It’s going to help me do that.”
Butcher, who has also moved into digital editing and printing, doesn’t think his legendary razor-sharp print quality will suffer, even when blown up to the large scale he prefers. He still makes his own silver gelatin prints on fiber-based paper by hand in his Venice studio, laboriously and painstakingly, spending as long as four days on a single image.
“People have no idea. With digital, people are used to having everything fast. But you come to our studio, and everything sloooows down,” Butcher says, adding that, so far, he’s happy with the results from the digital camera. “It looks like I can do a tack-sharp print.”
Even as he moves forward into the digital age, Butcher is also coming back full circle.
Born in Kansas City the son of an itinerant metalworker, he trained as an architect at California State Polytechnic, where he taught himself photography to capture the elaborate architectural models that were his forte. But when model-making didn’t pan out professionally, he began selling the California landscapes he was shooting as a hobby at art festivals. That led to the launch of a business supplying prints in bulk to department stores that grew to 200 employees before overextension forced a sale.
Butcher, in bankruptcy, brought his wife, Niki, and two children to Florida in 1980, in time settling in Fort Myers. He sold his Western landscapes, with little clocks in the corner, at art festivals, joined by his wife, by then also an accomplished photographer whose hand-tinted prints of old Florida beach houses and docks sometimes outsold his photographs.
One day, Niki, his constant companion on photo expeditions, dragged her reluctant husband to an old-time Central Florida roadside attraction, Tom Gaskin’s Cypress Knee Museum. Just off the highway, he found a riot of plant life in a pristine cypress swamp glowing with an incredible, diffuse light. Butcher went back to the site with a camera, for the first time enthused by scenery that was virtually a secret to all but the locals.
Two years later, when their 17-year-old son Ted was killed in Fort Myers by a drunk driver, a distraught Butcher forswore color photography. He dumped his color prints and, guided by a friend, plunged ever deeper into the solitude of Big Cypress and the Everglades.
He had found his true metier.
Butcher’s photos began drawing big crowds at the art festivals. He became a darling of environmentalists and state and national parks administrators and other advocates who saw in his photographs a way to popularize and build support for preserving wild places in Florida, which too many regarded as drab, monotonous swamplands with little value or beauty.
In 1993, the Butchers bought a hermit’s spread that backed up to a spectacular stretch of Big Cypress on the Tamiami Trail and built a home and studio before eventually moving to a warehouse district in Venice a decade ago. Today, Butcher has popular galleries in both places, and the Trail operation, which employs 10 people, also hosts well-attended guided walks through the surrounding swamp.
On Friday, Butcher will attend the grand opening of his third gallery, in Coconut Grove, during the Coconut Grove Arts Festival. It’s a special time and place for Butcher, who was discovered by the larger world while showing in a booth at the art fest. It was also the last festival he showed at, in 1998.
“People fell in love with his work here,” said Butcher’s daugher, Jackie Obendorf, who runs his business. “It was the hardest festival for him to give up. So it just seems so appropriate that we have a gallery in Coconut Grove.”
The gallery is the brainchild of architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, co-principal of Arquitectonica, the international firm that has its headquarters in the Grove, where he also lives. Fort-Brescia’s family recently bought an entire corner at McFarlane Road and Main Highway with the goal of recruiting new businesses that might restore some of the Grove’s lost Bohemian luster.
Fort-Brescia was doing a manatee swim with his granddaughter in Florida’s Crystal River when he dove under and came back up amid a lush, watery landscape that seemed strangely familiar.
“I surfaced and thought, ‘I’m in a Clyde Butcher picture.’ And then I thought, ‘Maybe I should call Clyde Butcher.’”
In short order, they had a deal. The Fort-Brescias cleared a storefront space on McFarlane and designed a spare, whitewashed gallery space with a bare concrete floor and exposed rafters.
The Clyde Butcher Everglades Gallery in the Grove promises a rotating sample of the photographer’s limited-edition prints, including new and classic images, and special exhibitions. Obendorf hopes to mount a show culled from a traveling exhibition, now in storage, of photos Butcher made during a 2002 trip to Cuba.
“This is going to be great for the Grove,” said collage artist Erika King, among a crowd of Butcher friends and collectors who jammed the gallery at an informal reception last month. “It’s going to elevate things in the Grove, which it needs.”
For Butcher, the new gallery provides a broader, big-city platform for his efforts to popularize the Everglades and Florida’s other unseen places. He says he considers himself an educator first and hopes his photographs will motivate visitors to go see it all for themselves.
“A lot of people live in Miami and have never been to the Everglades.” he said. “And a lot of people who go don’t get out of the car. People don’t get it in and experience it.”
“But,” said the man, who ought to know, “you can’t experience the Everglades from the road.”
If you go
Where: Clyde Butcher Everglades Gallery, 2994 McFarlane Rd., Miami.
When: Grand opening 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday. Regular hours noon to 8 p.m. weekdays, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. weekends.