As much as I love Clyde Butcher's Everglades photographs, I think I love watching him take a photograph even more. Peering through his camera, he is laid back and intense, funny and crabby, almost at once.
"Nobody move,'' he says. "Movement is my enemy.''
He issues the command from an airboat beached on a raft of lily pads. If I swat the wasp circling my head, if I move the boat even a little, I'll be responsible for ruining a Clyde Butcher photograph. Better to let the wasp have its way.
In Florida environmental circles, all you need to say is "Clyde'' and everyone knows about whom you are talking. Clyde is the bearish man who takes giant black and white landscapes that harken back to the time before paved roads and mosquito repellent. With his scraggly gray beard and weathered hat, he could be Walt Whitman's long lost cousin.
"Where is Mathew Brady when you need him?'' he jokes. Even his camera, a huge box on a tripod, looks as if it last saw service on a Civil War battlefield. Actually, his trusty Deardorff was manufactured in 1942 — older than he is by a year.
The camera takes black and white photographs, one sheet of film at a time, each sheet about the size of a book. The digital photography revolution passed him by. He often has to build his own equipment.
"I'm going to shoot this sucker at f/32 at one-fourth of a second," he says. Translation: He is going to make a relatively long exposure through a lens barely open.
"I like the nice grass in the foreground and the still water behind it. And those great clouds. I like clouds.''
Here comes the cloud.
I freeze like a mime.
The wasp leaves me be.
• • •
He is working on a new project: the northern Everglades. They begin near Orlando in creeks that become rivers that become lakes before reaching the southern sawgrass, cypress and mangrove country of the national park. He plans a new series of photographs and a book of Everglades work. He hopes the photos become part of a traveling museum exhibit to introduce the rest of America to the Everglades.
"People always ask what I love about the Everglades,'' he says, slyly. "Well, they're awfully pretty.''
Clyde has hired a young man from a Central Florida fish camp to show him around. Clyde makes photos on huge Lake Kissimmee. Then we land on Brahma Island, known for enormous oaks and hefty rattlesnakes.
"Floridians sometimes don't see the beauty of the Everglades,'' Clyde goes on, as we climb into a pickup truck. "They're afraid of it. But I give them very large photographs they can admire in an air-conditioned gallery if they want. That's fine with me. All I want them to do is value the Everglades.''
Some photos, 10 feet across, are portals to a dark and mysterious world of cypress knees, pond apple, ferns and black water. His photos invite you in. They also repel. Where are the alligators? Where are the cottonmouths? He never shows them, but we know they must be near.
"It's not just trees and grass and water and sky I'm trying to capture,'' Clyde tells people. "I am also trying to capture my feelings about the place.''
Clyde discovered the Everglades late in life. Missouri-born, he was an architect in California before he picked up a camera. He made enough money to give up architecture and move to Southwest Florida. His inspiration was Ansel Adams, famous for his black and white photos of the American West. In Florida Clyde failed to interest clients in black and white art. So he gave them what they wanted, nice color portraits of water and boats, and made a living.
In 1986 his teenage son was killed by a drunken driver, his father died, and his daughter developed temporary amnesia. His wife, Niki, tried to keep the family from falling apart. Coping at that moment seemed beyond Clyde's powers. He disappeared into the Everglades in "hopes of regaining my serenity and equilibrium,'' he once wrote.
He returned from his retreat weeks later with black and white photographs inspired by Adams and by his terrible grief. "I didn't care whether people would buy them or not,'' he once said. "Life is too short for you not to do what you want to do.''
The public loved his new work. He has not taken a color photograph since.
"I have always thought color is a copy of what's in front of you,'' he likes to say. "Black and white is interpretation.''
• • •
On Brahma Island, we see the promised humongous oaks but no fanged serpents. As we travel across the island, bald eagles fly overhead and deer jump the trail in front of us. We hear a sandhill crane trumpeting and see a gopher tortoise creeping into a burrow like an arthritic old grandfather.
We arrive at a beautiful and grotesque oak. Nobody knows how many times storms have knocked over the majestic tree during the last four centuries. But it has always managed to put down new roots and come back even stronger.
The huge main trunk lies parallel to the ground like a coiled rattler. Out of the peculiar horizontal trunk emerges seven additional trunks. Like Medusa's snakes, they twist and turn on their way to the light. Clyde, who has seen many fine oaks in his day, is impressed.
"I have to make a photograph for posterity," he says, dragging equipment out of the truck. "It's how I see my job. This tree is 400 years old. But lightning could hit it tomorrow.''
He likes to say his photographs celebrate life. Yet in the Everglades, death is always close by. Lightning kills a tree and another tree grows in its place. Once, in a swamp, in the middle of a storm, the air crackled with electricity around him. His hair stood on end. Blue electric sparks arced between his hands and his tripod. It was the only time he has witnessed the phenomenon known as St. Elmo's fire.
He remembers the trip when he had to bop an aggressive 10-foot alligator in the nose with a paddle. He remembers the afternoon Niki left a candy bar in her purse in the car. She walked outside in time to see a bear lumbering into the swamp with her purse.
"Florida is different than other places,'' Clyde says. He means 19 million residents, museums, universities, major league sports — not to mention alligators, purse-snatching bears and panthers.
One time he heard a panther catch a deer. It shook him up, the way the terrified deer screamed. Clyde heard it gurgle, drowning in its own blood, as the panther dragged it away in the dark. If he had walked five minutes to the nearest paved road and looked east, he would have seen the glow of the lights from Miami.
"Niki, stop talking, will you? I need you over here while I got good light.''
She hands him the lens. She hands him the film.
He makes the photograph of the 400-year-old oak tree that is alive today but might be dead tomorrow.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."
"Floridians sometimes don't see the beauty of the Everglades. They're afraid of it. But I give them very large photographs they can admire in an air-conditioned gallery if they want. That's fine with me. All I want them to do is value the Everglades.'' Clyde Butcher, photographer