CLEARWATER — Florida Artists Hall of Fame member Clyde Butcher has established himself as the country’s foremost landscape photographer of the 21st century, documenting America’s natural beauty with a passion for the Everglades. His photography has been the subject of documentaries and of exhibitions around the world.
Now the public can view Butcher’s vision at a free exhibition at the Clearwater Public Library’s main branch downtown. “America’s Everglades” presents Butcher’s large-format, black-and-white landscape photography of Florida’s subtropical region and its flora and fauna, subjects he has been documenting for more than three decades.
The exhibition is presented by the Clearwater Community Redevelopment Agency in a gallery setting. Running through May, it coincides with Everglades National Park’s 75th anniversary in 2022.
Butcher moved to Florida from California in 1980 and fell in love with the state’s nature beyond the beaches.
The exhibition also addresses conservation of the endangered habitat, something Butcher has been advocating for since he began his work. At a news conference in Clearwater on Nov. 5 introducing the exhibition, Butcher said he takes every chance he can get to share Florida’s nature and beauty with people, to show them “where their oxygen comes from.”
With 35 large-format photos, a video and Butcher’s 8- by 10-inch camera on display, the exhibition draws you into Butcher’s view of the Everglades, a welcome vantage for those who are too afraid of snakes and gators to set foot in the wilderness. For those who aren’t afraid, swamp tours are available through Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery in Ochopee.
Butcher has had his fair share of run-ins with wildlife. He regaled the news conference attendees with a tale of encountering a 12-foot alligator while shooting with a fellow photographer who was new to the Everglades. They were in the water with nowhere to run, so Butcher grabbed a paddle from the canoe that had hauled their camera and film, and whacked the gator in the nose, a sensitive area. It exploded into the air and went in the other direction.
Butcher also told the stories behind some of his incredible photographs.
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“Moonrise” was the first photograph Butcher took after the death of his son, Ted, who was killed by a drunken driver at 17. To cope with his grief, Butcher retreated into the Everglades. He’d previously been making color photographs for commercial work and artistically. But on this occasion, he decided that Florida’s natural beauty was best expressed in black and white, so he destroyed his color work. He was using an older lens and the shutter wasn’t working, so he had to manually create the exposure.
When asked why he prefers black and white to color, Butcher said that capturing nature in color had so much green that it made him want to throw up. “Being there is fine, but as a piece of art, it doesn’t work,” he said.
“Fakahatchee Strand #3″
Butcher described how arduous the commitment to large format-photography is with this photograph of “Fakahatchee Strand #3.” He had to walk 3 miles with a backpack containing 8- by 10-inch camera film, lenses and tripods, a load that weighed 65 pounds total. Also, it was in August in Florida. So it was a mission, but he got the image, which he said is particularly special now because the Guzmania bromeliads pictured are gone due to an invasive weevil from Mexico. He loves the otherworldly quality of the image.
“When you get up into the Everglades, you discover places that people have never seen before because there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world,” he said.
“Cigar Orchid Pond”
It took Butcher nine years to perfect his image of Cigar Orchid Pond in Big Cypress National Preserve. He called the image his favorite. Cigar Orchids aren’t actually pictured because they are at the bottom of the pond, making them hard to see. Beginning in 2000, Butcher found the spot and made it an annual trek with his family on New Year’s Day to capture an image, but various factors, including the wrong lighting, kept prohibiting the perfect photo. In 2009, everything lined up, and he was able to get that image. Butcher recounted that one of his tour guides had searched for the location for years before discovering it, despite passing it hundreds of times. Butcher attributes this to his own perception of the composition.
“I have to be able to perceive the shots because you can’t see it with your eyes. You have to be able to see what it is,” he said. “And it’s hard to believe it, everything I do is point and shoot. I see it with my mind and my eye and my heart. I set the tripod down with the camera, focus and take the picture.”
“Big Cypress Gallery #14″
As Floridians know, you don’t have to look far to discover nature and wildlife in the state. “Big Cypress Gallery #14″ was taken from the parking lot of Butcher’s studio. He said visitors to the gallery often ask where he goes to photograph in the Everglades, so it’s with a wink that this photo, taken with a wide-angle lens, exists.
“The problem is people don’t see,” he said. “You have to learn how to see before you can take pictures.”
“Ghost Orchid Triptych”
The famously elusive, rare Ghost Orchid has been the subject of crime and a subsequent book, The Orchid Thief, and a movie, Adaptation. Butcher has his own dramatic tale of venturing out to capture the flower. In 1999, he and a friend headed out in the pitch black at 4:30 a.m. He didn’t take a flashlight and stepped on a water moccasin. He said it felt like a hammer hit him on the heel. While heading to the hospital, he decided that because he wasn’t feeling too bad, he could reroute and make the photograph. He thinks that either he had a dry bite or any venom was pulled out during the hours he spent in the water.
The triptych depicts the same plant flower in 2000 and 2001. Butcher explained that the plants die when they become pollinated.
“The 8x10 Camera 20:58″
Another highlight of the exhibition is Butcher’s 8- by 10-inch camera that he used in the field. Now he calls it a “stupid” camera. The film is 12 inches by 20 inches. The camera without the lens weighs 45 pounds. The lens is 5 pounds, and the film holders are 30 pounds. The tripod is 15 to 20 pounds. In order to print such large-format photos, Butcher had to devise his own equipment.
Butcher suffered a stroke in 2017 and now uses a digital camera to capture his stunning images. Using a walker at age 79, he still gets back to his beloved Everglades, though he’s on his third walker due to the saltwater’s harsh effects on the bearings.
He said he’s taking more pictures than ever and thinks people who have similar conditions should get out and be active.
“Nature is one of those things that really helps you heal,” he said. “It doesn’t care who you are. There’s no politics involved.”
If you go
“America’s Everglades” exhibition runs through May 31. Free. Clearwater Public Library main branch. 100 N Osceola Ave. 727-562-4970. myclearwaterlibrary.com.