Clyde Butcher’s photography reveals ‘the special beauty of the Everglades in downtown Pensacola
The Pensacola Museum of Art is displaying “America’s Everglades: Through the Lens of Clyde Butcher.”
The traveling exhibition, which features 35 images by famed nature photographer Clyde Butcher, reflects over 30 years of work with a black-and-white, large format camera in the Florida Everglades.
“What I love to do is photograph nature that has not been manipulated by man,” Butcher said. “I find places that are primeval. That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for, nothing man-made.”
Printed on paper and enlarged to show detail, Butcher’s photography goes beyond simply detailing the beauty of the Everglades. They tell a story of an ecosystem rarely seen by man.
“I’ve been photographing the Everglades since 1984, and have never met another person out there,” Butcher said. “That’s how primitive the Everglades are.”
Inspired by the work of landscape photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, Butcher began photographing landscapes in black in white in the late 1960s. He would soon leave his career in architecture to exhibit his photographs at art festivals, later selling his color photography as wall decor to department stores.
One thing that sets Butcher apart from other photographers is that he uses an 8” by 10” viewfinder camera from the early 1940s. When he began photographing the Everglades, other camera options just wouldn't do it for him.
“The only way I could do prints was with a large camera,” Butcher said. “Thirty-five millimeter was not enough information to do the printing I wanted to do. I didn’t use it by choice; it was the only thing available.”
In 1986, Butcher’s life was forever changed when his 17-year-old son, Ted, was killed by a drunken driver. While grieving, he found solace in the Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida, where the spiritual connection with nature helped mend his soul.
After the death of his son, he vowed to abandon color film completely and work only in black and white.
“Color is a Xerox copy of nature and black and white is an interpretation,” Butcher said. “When you look at a black and white photograph, everything is one. The environment is also one, everything works together.”
The photographs on display in this exhibit convey Butcher’s determination and passion for the environment. He and his wife, Niki, would often wade through the swamps of the Everglades by foot, lugging his camera and equipment totaling over 100 pounds.
For photos like “Cigar Orchid Pond,” the duo would return to the same location time and time again, waiting for the perfect shot.
“Every New Year's Day, Niki and I would take a swamp walk to start the year off right,” Butcher said. “I saw this composition and area, about a two-hour walk behind my gallery, on January 1, 2000. I went back every year for nine years before I got the shot and everything was right.”
Other large-format images, including “Moonrise,” symbolize more than just the awe of the Everglades.
“It was the first photograph that Clyde made in black and white in the Everglades after his son’s death,” said Anna Wall, chief curator of the Pensacola Museum of Art. “It really reflects this new way of working for him, and also his grief and what the Everglades came to mean for him as a place of solace and comfort after this horrible life event.”
“I wasn’t taking them to sell, I was taking them because I wanted to take them,” said Butcher. “When I went to black and white photography, I figured the sales would be terrible, so I just photographed what I wanted to photograph. I think that works out with most art, if you do what you want to do, and not what people want you to do, it works out for the best.”
Also on display in this exhibit is one of Butcher's old-style 12” x 20” viewfinder cameras, allowing guests the opportunity to step behind the curtain and see how Butcher composes his photographs.
Throughout his career, Butcher has worked alongside other photographers, naturalists and conservationists to capture the enthralling beauty of the natural world. His photographs have been displayed in exhibitions throughout the United States and at the National Gallery of Art in Prague.
In his own words, Butcher “hopes to use his images to share the special beauty of the Everglades, allowing it to find a place in our hearts, motivating us to help save it.”
He believes that nature and man have an everlasting connection.
“My photography has helped the politicians here in Florida save the Everglades,” Butcher said. “Before I started photographing the Everglades, people thought it was just a dungy, grim place, they didn’t realize it was beautiful and worth fighting for to preserve. It’s been very instrumental in working on saving the Everglades and hopefully saving other places around the world, too.”
Butcher often works behind his gallery in Big Cypress Swamp, a nature preserve that borders the Everglades. Over the years, he’s grown familiar with the layout of the land.
“He has this really interesting philosophy that the world is round, meaning that what we do in our area of the world is not in isolation,” Wall said. “It has an effect on others across borders and oceans.”
Although devoted to photographing precious landscapes around the world, Butcher will always identify most with the Everglades. Through his photography, he hopes to educate the public by bringing environmental issues to the forefront of the public eye, as well as inspire people to visit wildlife areas.
“I hope this exhibit inspires people to visit not only the Everglades but to engage with our local Florida landscape to advocate for conservation of our areas, wildlife and fauna,” Wall said. “I hope people just have a greater respect for the world around us, and I think with so much divisiveness today, we can all rally around our environment, our landscape, and preserve it for the future.”
“America’s Everglades: Through the Lens of Clyde Butcher” is on display at the Pensacola Museum of Art until Sept. 18. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
For more information about the Pensacola Museum of Art, click here.