Capturing The Beauty Of South Florida's Wetlands

Clyde Butcher believes South Florida's wetlands have an image problem. Everglades National Park and the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve are unique, awe-inspiring places. But they're also swamps, with alligators, snakes and high water that discourage visitors from experiencing much of the beauty. For nearly three decades, Butcher has captured much of that beauty in his large-format, black-and-white photographs. They've won him acclaim as an artist and as an educator who's worked to spread the word about an area that's been called Florida's "last frontier."

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Clyde Butcher believes the wetlands of South Florida have an image problem. Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve are unique, awe-inspiring places, but they are also swamps, home to alligators and snakes, a fact that discourages some visitors. For decades, the image of those wetlands has been Clyde Butchers passion and his profession. Hes a photographer. He captures the beauty of the wetlands in large black and white photographs.

NPRs Greg Allen has this profile of the acclaimed artist and educator.

GREG ALLEN: Clyde Butcher doesnt just photograph South Floridas wetlands; for most of the last 20 years hes lived there. He has a house and an art gallery in the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve. Its 46 miles from the nearest grocery store, a remote spot he calls Loose Screw Sanctuary. It got that name when he tore down the old structures on the land in 1992.

Mr. CLYDE BUTCHER (Photographer): A fellow who was helping me tear things down here says, you've got to have a bolt loose to do this, out in the middle of nowhere.

ALLEN: If you spend much time with Clyde Butcher, youre bound to get wet. He shoots many of his pictures when hes on foot and up to his knees or hips in Big Cypress swamp water.

Mr. BUTCHER: And you're going to find a little drop-off here.

ALLEN: Were just out back of Butchers cottage where a small pond is home to a couple of large alligators and more than a dozen little 2-year-old gators, each about a foot and a half long.

Mr. BUTCHER: The most dangerous part of going to the swamp is usually the first four or five or six feet. Thats where snakes eat, and everything eats, so we got to be a little careful out through here.

ALLEN: Okay. You go first.

Mr. BUTCHER: I go first. The guy in the middle usually gets it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALLEN: Oh, thanks.

Butcher is a burly guy in his mid-60s with a bushy, white beard. Hes a striking figure as he trudges through knee-deep water. Some of his best-known photos were taken right here in his backyard. One called Loose Screw Gator captures the large adult male alligator that lives here in the pond. Today, we dont see the alligator and we forge ahead through water thats 20 degrees cooler than the air temperature.

Mr. BUTCHER: I think one thing that shocks people is the temperature of the water.

ALLEN: Well, I think a lot of people would not think that you should go - if theres water thats up to your knees, you should go walk through it and take a hike through this water.

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, why not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTCHER: I mean, when I get hot, all I got to do is lay down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALLEN: You cant take 45 pounds of camera this way.

Mr. BUTCHER: I usually take my five-by-seven, and the complete package is probably about 45 pounds, but thats the camera, lenses, film. So its not too bad. Its in a backpack on my back.

ALLEN: Butcher mostly uses vintage Deardorff cameras. Theyre large-format box cameras similar to the ones Mathew Brady used for his Civil War photos 150 years ago. More to the point, theyre also similar to the cameras used by famed photographer Ansel Adams.

Were in Butchers Big Cypress Gallery now, sitting at table, surrounded by his large gelatin silver prints. In style and substance, they evoke Ansel Adams. Butcher has never denied the influence.

Mr. BUTCHER: Oh, gosh, no. I mean, I dont know if I would be doing this if I hadnt seen his work. Because back then, this is in the 60s, you know, what is art? What is photography as art? In fact I did my first art show - I think it was in 68 or 69. And I was in the macrame division. Well, it was considered a craft.

ALLEN: Over the last two decades, Butcher has won many awards for his photography and his work on behalf of the environment. He has published photo collections of Big Cypress, Cuba and the national parks, among others. Its work that stems from a tragedy.

In 1986, his 17-year-old son, Ted, was killed in a car crash. At that time, Butcher was using color film for his nature photography, selling his photos at art shows and doing quite well. After time spent in mourning and reflection, Butcher decided to go back to black and white.

Mr. BUTCHER: So I took all my color work, which was two big bread trucks full of prints, I estimated probably three to $400,000 worth of color work, and took it to the dump and watched the machine run over it, because I knew that Id just go right back if I didnt make any sales.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTCHER: And I took off in the woods. In fact, two of my best shots were done in that period of time, was Moonrise and Ochopee.

ALLEN: Like many of Butchers photos, Moonrise is an arresting image. Its a dwarfed cypress forest. The horizon is in the bottom third of the photo. Dominating the upper two-thirds of the shot is the daytime moon and a massive bank of clouds.

Mr. BUTCHER: These clouds - I call those kind of clouds battleships coming across the Everglades. So I said, Im going to take some pictures as this is going across, and because the moon was coming up and its getting pretty exciting. So I went, and the shutter wouldnt work.

ALLEN: Butcher eventually got the shot by opening the shutter manually and holding a dark slide over the lens, a technique common in the 1800s. That shot and others are part of a documentary on the Big Cypress that will be shown at the new visitor center there. Its the latest in a series of documentaries by filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus that feature both Butchers photography and the artist himself.

At a recent showing of the film, Stoltzfus said Butcher is more than just a photographer; he has become a spokesman for Floridas fragile natural areas.

Mr. ELAM STOLTZFUS (Filmmaker): He's a little bit, a tad eccentric. But hes a great artist. Hes very confident in what hes doing. And he has created an incredible following. And at the end of the day, its about education.

ALLEN: Clyde Butcher likes to say hed rather be known not as an artist, but as a communicator. Thats the reason he holds twice yearly swamp walks when he invites the public on guided and wet tours of his piece of Big Cypress.

Mr. BUTCHER: It's just a magical place.

ALLEN: Were back in Butchers backyard, wading through knee-high water, ducking under limbs with wild orchids hanging. There are bromeliads, air plants growing on cypress, and bladderwort, a small carnivorous plant that floats in the water and traps small aquatic creatures.

Butcher recently moved from his cabin here into a house in nearby Naples in part so he has fewer distractions. His Big Cypress Gallery is a regular stop now for tour buses. His swamp walks draw so many people hes had to limit them to just 500 per weekend. Hell keep shooting his big black and white photographs, but Butcher says his real goal lies in teaching.

Mr. BUTCHER: If I can do what Ive done in Big Cypress in other places, it might help people all over the United States help a little bit. Because I see so many of these great places and I dont see images that comprehend those spaces. And I feel that I would like to start doing that, to share it with people, maybe it will get people thinking that nature is important.

ALLEN: Right now, Butcher is shooting pictures for a project that will document the entire Everglades ecosystem, from the headwaters near Orlando, all the way down to Florida Bay. Hes working to turn that into a multimedia exhibit that will tour the country, called The Everglades: Americas Amazon.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

NORRIS: And you can see photos taken by Clyde Butcher at NPRs photography blog, The Picture Show. Thats at npr.org.

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