When the folks at the Salvador Dali Museum had the idea to ask the master of Florida landscape photography, Clyde Butcher, to capture the rugged coastline of Salvador Dali’s Spain, they could not have imagined the inspired results. As you can see in "Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali’s Spain" now at the Dali, the man known for steamy sun state swamps was able to leap into the menacing vistas of Dali’s childhood.
For the 77-year-old Butcher, this was not the first big leap in his life. It’s hard to imagine, but Clyde Butcher wanted to be an architect before he stumbled into photography.
While a student at California Polytechnic State University, he saw what the architecture students were doing and thought, "It looks like fun." He found his first-year perspective drawing class to be fascinating.
"Architecture has to be accurate," said the detail-oriented Butcher.
He ran into trouble in a second-year design class when he found out he couldn’t draw. This became a major problem when he was assigned to design a museum for the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. "I couldn’t figure out how to make it look good," he recalled.
His anxiety level rose to stratospheric levels because the professor was going to issue either A’s or F’s but nothing in between.
"I was up in the mountains and I saw some fir trees about four feet high. I built a scale model with those trees and took photos of the model,’’ Butcher remembered.
He turned in the assignment and then went for five days with no sleep. "Then I slept for 24 hours solid. My roommate put a firecracker under my pillow and I did not wake up. The firecracker was smoking!"
He received an "A’’ and an apology from the professor who said he was surprised that the photograph worked.
That early encounter with photography eventually led to his lifelong distinguished career. Considered the Ansel Adams of the Florida landscape, he has long been revered for capturing the richness of Florida’s natural beauty. When the Salvador Dali Museum asked Butcher to photograph the Spanish landscapes of Dali’s youth, Butcher responded with works that possess the beauty and architectural precision of his Florida photographs.
"I am an architect by trade," he noted.
Butcher and his wife Niki spent 10 days in Spain in Dali’s childhood village of Cadaques, the Cap de Creus, Port Lligat and other parts of the Catalonian region.
"I saw that in some of his paintings Dali used the landscape for inspiration," he said. "The landscape is like the west coast of California with its rocks, saltwater, ocean, cactus and desert. The winds come down from the mountains and are strong enough to pull you off your feet."
In Plaja S’Arenella, inspired by Dali’s The Angel of Port Lligat, the distant sun is centered in the sky with the boat pointing at it from an ever-so-slightly off-center position. The beach and rocks on the right and left form diagonals leading your eye back to an imaginary vanishing point on the horizon. In spite of the distant clouds, the scene is nearly airless, as if some apocalyptic hush has fallen over the scene.
Those results are not accidental. In fact, you’ll find Butcher’s diagonals leading to a vanishing point on the horizon in most of the stunning works in the show. Many of them are 8-foot wide panoramas.
When asked about the fact that there is no atmospheric haze, Butcher said, "You have to wait a while for the good blacks and the good whites and grays in between."
It all takes patience. He recalled the time when he waited for five days for the sun to hit the beach just right. He got just two images in those five days.
In Cap de Creus, the nose of the animal formed by the rocks marks the centering point in Butcher’s composition. The jagged shoreline leads your eye back to the horizon. The sharp blacks and whites add to the feelings of menace, feelings that are echoed in some of Dali’s paintings of the area.
This scene also has no haze. It has the clarity of a landscape freshly washed by a rain storm, with blacks, whites and grays totally crisp.
For Butcher, the some of the magic to this is in the printing process.
"It’s no secret," he says. "Keep at it to get it right. Keep trying to get it right."
Butcher’s father was a sheet metal worker. When Butcher was growing up he built boats and helped his dad build air conditioning ducts in the family garage.
This gave him the skills and the drive for precision to build his own photography equipment later in life, "I built several boats and I had to figure out a way to do it. Most people, when they can’t find the right equipment, they stop," he said. "You have to figure out a way to do it."
Contact Joanne Milani at [email protected]