Clyde Butcher moved with his family into the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve in 1993. He purchased 13 acres of swamp with a two-story dwelling surrounded by wild orchids and irises in the middle of a cypress strand. Today, you can sit on his back porch and watch alligators. Clyde has recently been named a Guardian of The Everglades and through his photography he lets people see the natural places of wild Florida in a new way. We sat down at Clyde’s studio and gallery in Venice, Florida for this conversation in February 2013, the day before the 20th anniversary cele- bration of his Big Cypress Gallery.
PT: The dedication in “Portfolio I” mentions your first camera; mine was a little plastic Brownie. What kind was yours and what did you photograph?
CB: I had a Kodak Brownie, and still own it. My first shots were some Grand Canyon negatives while on a vacation, I was about nine years old—they weren’t very good!
PT: How did you gain your initial skills in photography?
CB:In school studying architecture, I would build models of my designs and after I discovered I couldn’t draw, I used a cardboard pinhole camera I built to photograph them. I bought HO Scale people to populate the buildings and then photographed them in the woods so trees were included. I later borrowed the Dean’s 35mm Exacta camera and eventually customized a Canon so I could fit the lens inside the model’s spaces.
PT: What is the best way to learn photography? How do you teach photography?
CB: Study different books, images and techniques and then just go do it. Shoot a lot. Try different things. These days digital makes it much easier due to the lower cost and instant feedback. I tried it (teaching) but people seemed to be more interested in being around ‘Clyde’ than learning photography, so I stopped. For the really serious, an apprenticeship method would be far better. I did a workshop in Death Valley, and when I turned around all the people were scattered about. If I ever did another workshop, I would require people to leave their cameras home. I believe the biggest issue is that people need to learn to see.
PT: Which equipment did you prefer at the early stages of your career? What about now?
CB: In the 1960s I used a film called Ansco Dandy- Pan. It was 20 cents for a roll of 120. I then moved to a 21⁄4 Mamiya Press camera and a Kodak Medalist with a 50mm lens, a camera made for the military. In 1971
I bought a 5×7 Deardorff view camera for $100 with a 90mm lens. I shot Ektacolor—never slides. Now I work in large format, using three Deardorff view cameras, a 5×7, an 8×10, and an 11×14 plus a 12×20 Wisner. But I recently bought a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and am learning how to use it. My wife Niki now also uses her iPhone, and we find the Schneider wide-angle lens for the iPhone is an excellent addition.
PT: Based on your experience to date, which medium would you call more difficult to master, film or digital?
CB: Digital is a 100 times harder. There are so many things to contemplate to get a good quality image. With film all you worry about is f-stop and shutter speed. Digital makes photographers better quicker—low cost with no delays.
PT: You have been compared to Ansel Adams. How much of an influence did he have on your photography?
CB:About 80%. When I first saw him photograph a tree, I wondered why he would choose a tree, as you couldn’t sell that tree. I then saw that tree as an experience with nature. I might not have started black and white without the experience I had with Ansel Adams.
PT: How are you and he alike or different?
CB: We both have beards…and a right-left brain balance. We use custom darkroom equipment. I built my equipment—he designed his and had it made for him. I’m not musical. We are technically similar, but with different composition. I use short lenses, Ansel used long lenses.
PT: Your name is synonymous with everglades photo- graphy. What influenced your choice of southern Florida as your main subject over other areas of the U.S.?
CB: Sailing, water, warmth and Niki likes green. Sailing was a big attraction I’ve always had a fascination with boats, and I tried building one at an early age with found wood but it sunk. I was here four years before I did any photography in a swamp. We had stopped at a roadside attraction, and the owner said he had boardwalk out back. It really was a ‘board walk,’ a single board wide! It got me into the woods. I experienced the same feeling I had when walking in a redwood forest. A whole new world opened up. It was a turning point. Niki and I had driven through the area countless times. When I stepped into the swamp I knew this was a very different Florida hidden from the casual viewer.
PT: What do you consider the most important aspects of composing a fine art photograph?
CB: I have no formula. I like to create a space, probably a holdover from architectural school. I don’t follow the traditionally popular rules, rule of thirds, and the like. My rules are the image has to feel good.
I create room for the viewer to “move into the picture.” My photographs are spaces. In most of my images, in the center of the photograph, where the subject should be, is a vacant space for the viewer to move into. I create large prints to force the viewer to move into the scene since he or she can’t see a print of that size with just a glance.
PT: How do you choose locations? Are there any tools you use to assist in finding locations to capture an image?
CB: No tools, it must be nature where man has no impact. It has to have chaos. Without chaos it’s not natural biological order. Groves of trees all the same size and lined up is not natural. I like to make order from chaos using a 90-150mm lens on an 8×10 view camera. I’m primarily interested in places where man has no impact.
PT: How much luck is involved with capturing your images?
CB: Three things: Being there and in tune with nature. You must always have your eyes and spirit wide open for composition, light and subject matter. Knowing my equipment, so I don’t have to think about it. Then comes any luck.
PT: I’ve read that nature photography has been credited with increasing the rise in the movement to preserve our natural world. When in your career did you become a champion for nature? How has that influenced your photography?
CB: When a drunk driver killed my son in 1986, nature helped heal us. I had always been a champion of nature but didn’t understand it. Before that I didn’t want to do anything that didn’t make money. I learned there is more to life than money. I moved to black and white to see nature—you can’t see it in color, you just see the color. Removing the color encourages the human eye to distinguish the scene’s textures and depth.
PT: Tell me about your film choice. Is it true you use Kodak T-Max 100 exclusively, and what influenced your decision to only use one film type? What about paper choices and darkroom equipment?
CB: T-Max 100 film is so sharp, has such good grain and is silver rich. I can make a 10-foot long print without grain and have more tonal range. It’s less sensitive to blue. I use Kodak chemicals. In 1988 I devel- oped an additive to eliminate a developing issue with the manufacturer’s developer and still use it today. I have one horizontal and seven vertical enlargers that are capable of handling negatives ranging in sizes from 4×5 to 12×20 and each of them are equipped with an Aristo variable-contrast head. The paper I use is Ilford Multigrade IV FB Fiber paper, with Kodak chemicals: Polymax RT Developer, Stop bath, Rapid Fixer and Selenium Toner.
PT:Clyde, you and I are of the same ‘vintage,’ which leads me to this question. As we approach the inevitable, what plans have you made for your library of images?
CB: The business goes to the family via a family trust. I don’t have confidence in universities and museums. They have a less than stellar record managing fine art. When things get tight the art can be sold to raise revenue or it might be stored away in a vault and never be seen.
Every negative I’ve made has been scanned, digitized and ‘photo-shopped’ by me so prints could be made the way I would want them to be, as long as people want to buy them. The library may grow. Despite that I’m 70 years old, we’re getting ready for a five month trip around the country, and I’ll probably shoot 1,500 images. That will deplete my current film inventory, and when we get back if I decide I’m still having fun I’ll buy another lot of film—the sizes I use require I purchase in lots, and it’s an expensive proposition. Friend Clyde on Facebook to follow his five month trip (facebook.com/clydebutcher).
PT: How do you define fine art?
CB: You can’t! So many have tried, none have succeeded. It feels good if it comes from the heart. Working with your heart is much different than working with your head. Fine art has little to do with the camera or process. It’s the person behind the camera that creates the art through their interpretation of the scene.
PT: Is there anything you would like to add? CB: Don’t follow trends—follow your heart.