SEEING THE LIGHT
Wilderness and Salvation:
A Photographer's Tale
By Tom Schroder and John Barry
Photographs by Clyde Butcher
Random House, $30.
Reviewed by Eric Lacker
When we first encounter Clyde Butcher, he is waiting for the moon to rise. This tattered bear of a man is crouched in a South Florida swamp beside an ancient-looking box camera. The wild landscape in front of him is like a piece of the distant past, a world that is as yet unblemished by the abrasions of man. Clyde studies the light and makes a photographer's calculations, waiting for the world to fulfill his vision.
When "the pale moon, gibbous and translucent" has climbed up into the sky and a majestic galleon of a cloud has drifted into view below it, the photographer goes to work. He climbs a stepladder to his elevated camera, tucks his head under the camera's black cowl and trips the shutter.
But nothing happens.
The shutter is old, and today it refuses to work. The moon, the cloud and the light hold their places, but for how long?
Butcher moves frantically, removing the lens, and jamming the balky shutter open with his fingers. He replaces the lens and then, using a black photographic plate as a make-shift shutter, he begins taking pictures. The normally precise calculations for exposing the film are now made by guesswork. Clyde shoots the scene 14 times. All the exposures are ruined, all except one "that would emerge in his darkroom, a catalog of the details of perfection."
This is the scene that opens this lyrical jewel of a book by Tom Schroder and John Barry, who both work for the Miami Herald. They have artfully and eloquently traced the life of a man whose dogged and uncompromising ways have brought him over rough and sometimes tragic trails to this place, to this fate: "to be a man with a camera waiting in the wilderness."
As an architecture student in California, Clyde Butcher began taking photographs because he couldn't draw. Instead of doing architectural renderings, he would build elaborate scale models out of balsa wood and then photograph them. His photographic skills were learned on his own, largely through trial and error. But he was well served by a lot of hard work, enthusiasm and determination. He would hunt through the hills looking for stands of dwarf trees that could serve as realistic backdrops for his model houses, and he was fond of challenging people to tell the difference between his photos and pictures of real buildings. Many times they could not.
Clyde loved the sea and more than once was the owner of a sailboat. On a vacation voyage to Mexico a freak storm with hurricane-force winds battered his craft through one long and harrowing night. By morning, the seas were calm and his destination in sight. Clyde had ridden out a storm and it had taken him just where he wanted to go. It was a pattern that would follow him throughout his life.
Clyde was a family man with a wife, Niki, and two children, daughter Jackie and son Ted, to support. He tried working in an office, but settled instead on self-employment after coming to grips with layoffs and his natural aversion to such toil.
At a friend's suggestion, they tried selling some of Clyde's hobby photos at a weekend art show. The black-and-white landscapes sold well, and Clyde charged into his new career. But the economics of the art show circuit were not a path to prosperity. The family was soon homeless, living in a tent trailer.
The Butchers' storm-tossed lives took many unexpected turns. The art show photos eventually led them into a business partnership called Eye Encounter, marketing Clyde's photos as room decorations to J. C. Penney and other stores. At one point the company had 200 employees; a single popular image sold 250,000 copies. But again economics undercut success, and they were forced to sell. They opened up a souvenir shop where Clyde sold photographs with small clocks set into them. Then he tried on his own to set up another national photo marketing business. This time the result was bankruptcy.
The family moved to Florida, where they tried to put their lives back together. They made picture clocks in Fort Lauderdale and after moving to Fort Myers, returned to the art show circuit.
Then on Father's Day of 1986, their lives plunged into a pit more painful than any they had ever encountered. Their son Ted was killed in a bizarre traffic accident. In the midst of his despair and grief, Clyde felt the structure of his life slipping away. His pictures "looked unfamiliar to him, as if someone else has taken them for reasons he couldn't understand." Then, abruptly, he was struck by a vision, and he knew what he would do with the rest of his life. He would shelve all of his past work and dedicate himself to photographing only natural Florida _ and only in black and white.
Clyde threw himself into this work and immersed himself in the solace of the swamps, slogging almost daily at the heels of Oscar Thompson, a fellow photographer and swamp-savvy cracker. In these wild places Clyde felt as though he belonged. In the swamps, "it was as if he could touch the eternal, a place that had been remaking itself ever since the ocean rolled back and the sun shone on the reef."
The new photos were instantly popular and soon came to the attention of people interested in saving the Everglades. The idea that these wild places that so moved him were endangered only increased Clyde's sense of destiny and mission. "He had been unable to go into court and rail against the wastrels whose deadly carelessness had killed Ted. Now through the viewfinder of his camera, he railed against the global carelessness that was threatening to kill the wilderness."
Even as we are drawn by Clyde Butcher's photographs into the swamps and into his mission of conservation, we are also drawn in by this book's finely etched imagery:
"And it was the light that captured Clyde, pure and clean as the air and water, more powerful than both. It slanted through the dense and complex foliage and lifted off the splintered water like a spirit descending to kiss the earth, then rising again to heaven. It struck him, his eyes, his skin, his nostrils like a revelation."
If this book has a flaw, it is only that it gives us too few of Clyde Butcher's captivating photographs. But we can all be uplifted by sharing the heartening experiences and visions of a man who has grappled with life on his own terms, who has ridden out many storms and found in the midst of grief a sure sense of purpose.
Eric Lacker is letters editor for the Times.