Clyde Butcher Finds Inner Peace in the Wilderness

All images by Clyde Butcher. Used with permission.

Clyde Butcher has recently become acutely aware of his mortality. “My time on this beautiful world is coming to an end…74 and counting…I want to spend my time left here on this great planet out in the beauty of nature, photographing. Heaven, before heaven.”

One look at his work and you may think: “Heaven, indeed.”

Some 15 years ago, when I was the managing editor of a well-known photo magazine, I dubbed Clyde Butcher “The Next Ansel Adams.” For good reason: His photos of Florida’s Everglades, which were all I knew of him, and they were awesome and impressive not just because of the Ansel influence, but because he had clearly found his place. If Ansel visually owned the West, Clyde owned Florida. But there was more. Much more.

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The depth of Clyde Butcher’s photographic experience has been brought to the public this year with the publication of his new book, “Celebrating America’s National Parks,” which can be purchased through his web site. The book commemorates the 100th anniversary of the United States’ National Parks system with photos that Butcher has taken over the years. “The concept started with my exhibit for for the Muscle Museum at the College of William and Mary,” notes Butcher. “Jamestown was celebrating it’s 400th year and the college wanted to join in the celebration. The decision was to create an exhibit of what followed after Jamestown in a series of images taken across the USA. During that photographic trip to include areas that I had not yet photographed I went to several National Parks. The exhibit was a success and is still traveling.”

In the book, Butcher “wanted to share the beauty of the parks he have visited, but I also wanted people to know something about the parks and so there is also a small bit of writing on each park researched and written by Donna F.G. Hailson.” he states. “Between my images and Donna’s writing I’m hoping my book inspires people to enjoy their park system. We’re very fortunate our forefathers saved these places for us and it is my hope that our generation saves these places and more for future generations. We need these places of spiritual sanctuary for the health of our country.”

I was fortunate enough to interview Clyde Butcher again and take a deep dive into his philosophy, his technique and his evolution as a photographer.

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How do you choose a location to photograph?

I never go anywhere with expectations of what I will photograph. I follow the light and when that is right and the feeling is correct, I take the photograph.

How long do you spend creating an image…both the shooting phase and in the darkroom? Walk us through your process.

I can say it has taken me as long as nine years to capture one of my images. I returned nine times before all the conditions were right before I captured the Cigar Orchid Pond image. It has also has taken as little as one day. So much about photography is being there when the light is right. Sometimes you’re lucky, and sometimes you’re not.

As for the darkroom, once again it depends on the image. When I took my photography trip out west for the images to be shown in my America The Beautiful exhibit I shot 1700 sheets of film. It took me two months to process the film and a month to study the negatives to see which ones I wanted to print and by the time I tested and printed the images it was six months before I saw the first good print.

As for darkroom work, some images are easy to print and others are much more difficult. It can take as much as two days to five days to test and make a final print.

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You spend a lot of time in the Everglades partly submerged in the water. Any concern about alligators?

I never get into the swamp during mating season, when a female warns me she has young nearby, or anywhere where people are in abundance (gator’s have probably been fed). I only get into the water in the wilderness. Animals are fearful of humans and generally stay away….but it is the wilderness, and it isn’t predictable.

How did Ansel Adams and the Hudson River School painters of the 19th century influence your approach to landscape photography?

I have always loved the Hudson Bay painting period. The paintings are very large and create a mood and feeling that draws you into the image. I wanted to do that with my photography. Light plays an important part in creating those kinds of scenes. I wanted to create large images, just as the Hudson River folks did, so that the person looking at the image would feel drawn into it and therefore would feel how it could be if they were there.

I was an architectural major in college and in the summer 1961 I joined my wife-to-be and her family while they were vacationing in Yosemite. For the first time I saw Ansel Adams’s work and was deeply impressed. I began researching other photographers and also fell in love with the work of Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston. I began playing around with photography for fun by photographing nature and trying to capture the kind of light they were able to capture.

As to B&W and not color, I had started out when there was only black and white film. Color film wasn’t available unless you had a lot of money. However, when color film became popular, and less expensive, I switched over to color because the images would match the green shag carpets and gold couches of the time period. I had a family to support, and this paid the bills. When my son was killed by a drunk driver in Florida I decided to do what my heart had been telling me to do and I threw out all my color work and returned to black and white. Black and white was what was right for me, and I’m very happy viewing the world in that way.

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Do you feel there are similarities between architecture photography and landscape photography?

The similarities are in the presentation of an architects design. An architect needs to present a three dimensional idea in a two dimensional presentation, but the client has to feel like it is a three dimensional presentation in order to fully understand the design. The same holds true for a landscape photographer. We are trying to take a three dimensional environmental experience and present it on a two dimensional plane as a photograph, but we want the viewer to feel like they are there — to feel it three dimensionally.

Like Ansel, you’ve chosen large-format B&W film as your format of choice. What drove this decision?

I wanted my images to be large. Therefore, I needed a quality of film that could hold up the detail as the image was blown up to 4×7 or 5×7-foot prints. For fifty years I have shot with large format cameras from 5×7 to 12×20”. It’s wonderful to view an image that is very large and be able to see everything in it sharp and clear.

Do you ever shoot digital or use digital photography as a tool?

I’ve gotten older so I’m not as agile as I was. I came to the conclusion that carrying around 60-70 pound backpack of large-format camera gear just isn’t going to happen any more. It took me a while to accept that—I didn’t want to give up photography because it is my life. Two years ago I went digital. I now only carry my Sony A7R2 with my 17mm tilt and shift lens, and it only weights around 5 pounds!

Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida For some time I had wanted to take a photograph of a full moon over the Everglades. I had been tracking the moon phases of the calendar for months waiting for the proper time when the angle of the moon and sun align for the best effect. When the day came, I took my camera out into the 'glades, and then, in order to get a perspective over the tops of the dwarf cypress trees, I set my camera on top of my ten-foot ladder...then I waited. When the clouds cooperated to create a nice composition, I snapped the shutter...it didn't work! I said a few words that were loud enough to scare the birds out of the trees and then I took the lens off, pried open the shutter, put the lens back on the camera and used the dark slide as a shutter, guessing at the exposure time.

Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
For some time I had wanted to take a photograph of a full moon over the Everglades. I had been tracking the moon phases of the calendar for months waiting for the proper time when the angle of the moon and sun align for the best effect. When the day came, I took my camera out into the ‘glades, and then, in order to get a perspective over the tops of the dwarf cypress trees, I set my camera on top of my ten-foot ladder…then I waited. When the clouds cooperated to create a nice composition, I snapped the shutter…it didn’t work! I said a few words that were loud enough to scare the birds out of the trees and then I took the lens off, pried open the shutter, put the lens back on the camera and used the dark slide as a shutter, guessing at the exposure time.

What equipment do you use?

Large Format Photography: I use a 5×7″, 8×10″, 11×14″ Deardorf and a 12×20” Wisner. The lenses I use range from 72mm to 1100mm.

Digital: I use a SonyA7R2 with a Cannon 17, 24, 45, 90mm tilt and shifts.

What role do you feel landscape photography plays in support for environmental preservation?

Photography plays a LARGE role in helping people fall in love with the environment. How can we save our environment if there are no photographs that show the beauty of what we will loose if we don’t take care?

Our society is, for the most part, rushing around ignoring everything except what HAS to be done that day. Hundreds and thousands of people visit our National Parks, but most of them spend just a few minutes in the park and rush on. Photographs of beautiful places not only educate the public, but I believe it also lowers the blood pressure. To be able to have a serene image on an office or home wall allows the viewer a moment of peace.

See more of Clyde’s work and order his book at ClydeButcher.com.

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