By Jeff Klinkenberg
Clyde Butcher tolerates mosquitoes. He stays calm around alligators and venomous cottonmouth snakes. He worries less about gape-toothed critters than about dropping his camera into the swamp. Get your feet wet, but keep your equipment dry is his credo.
Florida’s best-known photographer wades into the Everglades and looks for something special. Sometimes it’s the clouds scudding across the spectacular sky. Sometimes it’s the ferns and pond apples and orchids and cypress trees in the deep shadows. In his lab, he prints his black-and-white photos as large as possible, sometimes wider than a living room wall.
“I want people to be stunned by the size,’’ he once told me. “I want them to think they are actually walking into the scene. And it’s going to be a black-and-white scene. Black and white, to me, is haunting.’’
Like Clyde Butcher's Everglades photos, everything about him is big. He wears a big white cowboy hat. His white beard flows to his chest. He sometimes uses a camera as big as a microwave oven. At 275 pounds, Clyde routinely sinks into the muck while working. One time his wife Niki had to rescue him from curious alligators by dragging him into the boat. She still isn’t sure how she managed.
His landscapes are found in museums all over the United States. They’re in private homes and in his Big Cypress Gallery on the Tamiami Trail, the road across the Everglades that connects Miami and Naples. Down in his part of the world, if you say “Clyde,’’ everyone knows who you’re talking about.
Like many Floridians, Clyde is from somewhere else. He was born in Missouri but lived in Kentucky and Ohio and California while growing up. An outdoorsy boy, he made his own slingshots and bows and arrows. Eventually he started doing his hunting with an old Brownie Hawkeye camera. As an architecture college student in California, he discovered Ansel Adams, famous for his spectacular black-and-white photos of California’s Yosemite National Park.
Clyde was a successful architect. But in California he became a millionaire selling his dreamy color seascapes for home décor. He took early retirement to live with his family on a sailboat in Florida. Retirement ended the moment he discovered the Everglades and Oscar Thompson. A swamp man who also happened to be a photographer, Thompson taught him where to go and what to do when encountering critters with big teeth.
Thompson shot in color so Clyde did the same, all the while wondering if one day he might do black-and-white art like his hero Ansel Adams. “But I was told that nobody would buy black-and-white photos in Florida.’’
In 1986, a tragedy changed everything. His teenage son, Ted, was killed by a drunk driver. Clyde was frozen with grief. Niki, trying to hold her own life together, watched her husband disappear into the swamp with his camera.
For decades Clyde and Niki lived in the swamp where panthers strolled through their yard and alligators hissed from the pond. One afternoon a black bear stole Niki’s purse from her VW Beetle as she unloaded groceries. That was the last time she carried a candy bar.
At first, Clyde’s weaponry was the kind of camera Matthew Brady might have used to document the Civil War – basically a giant box atop a tripod. A few times, he let me tag along on expeditions. We’d wade in. Clyde would stop. To me, pretty much everything during Clyde Butcher’s swamp walk tours looked the same. Not to Clyde. “Let’s take a picture,’’ he would announce. I opened the backpack he wears and handed him wood that folded out into a camera. I handed him big plates of film he slid into the giant box. I handed him a lens. Opening the lens with his hand – there was no button – he exposed the film, sometimes for minutes at a time, in the dim light.
I froze like a statue of a flamingo. Moving would stir the water that would shake the camera that would blur Clyde Butcher's Everglades photos. If a mosquito landed on my nose, I didn’t dare slap. If something splashed behind me, I couldn’t turn to see whether a tree limb had fallen or an alligator was swimming over to visit.
Over the decades, he has photographed the natural world on many continents. His favorite place remains the Everglades. “I want to celebrate the Everglades,’’ he tells people. “Every time I’m out here, it’s different. It’s the clouds, it’s the water, it’s the plants. It’s so full of life. I am always inspired.”
In his 70s now, he has suffered two strokes, endured surgery on joints, plus the usual aches and pains of age. Sometimes he’s crabby. Sometimes he feels dizzy. The old 60-pound Civil War camera feels heavy now. He recently bought his first 21st-century piece of equipment, a digital Nikon. He is excited about seeing what happens next.
“Come on,’’ he tells me.
We step into the swamp.
When you go…
Visit clydebutcher.com to learn more about Clyde, his photography, his books, his exhibits, Clyde Butcher’s swamp walk, and how you can rent his home in the Big Cypress.
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