Just like the equipment he uses, they don’t make ‘em like Clyde Butcher anymore. He’s a rare sort of breed, one that has been cultivated and cultured through many years of standing waist (and sometimes chest) deep in Florida waters to snap iconic black and white images of Florida’s often over-looked swamps and springs.
Much of the machines he uses are out of date and some of them were being thrown away when he rescued them from obscurity. But it’s these archaic forms of equipment that have helped Butcher capture some of the most artistic landscape of Florida that the world has ever seen.
A gruff and particular man, Butcher doesn’t mind explaining how he takes his incredible Florida landscape photos, but he might give you a big sigh and a long pause before finding a way to explain his laborious process. He truly loves the environment and his passion and salty demeanor makes him so likeable, really.
Sitting amongst his many vertical enlarging machines and test prints at his Venice, Fla. studio, we chatted with Butcher about his life as one of the nation’s most influential landscape photographers.
When did you take your first photo?
I first got into photography when I was 9. My first shots were of the Grand Canyon.
How did you get into black and white photography?
I started shooting in color in 1983. In ’86 our son was killed by a drunk driver, it was actually a little more complicated than that, but that was when I decided I wanted to go back to the art of photography.
Why abandon color photography all together?
I felt that the color was very distracting. We had too much green and too much color. I like to refer to it as an environmental thing. One thing I ask people is what would you prefer: air or water. What I’m saying is, everything in nature has the same importance. If you like blue, you’re going to see the sky. If you like green, you’re going to see the grass. You’re not going to see the image as a whole. Black and whites make a oneness to nature, otherwise you wouldn’t see the context of the image. But there’s also the short answer that black and white is art but color ain’t! (laughs)
How does your camera work?
It’s really interesting how my camera works. With these wide-angle lenses you can’t actually see the image, there’s no viewfinder. The wide angle on these cameras is designed completely different than a wide angle for a view camera. These are called retro focus lens. With digital cameras, you have very complex lens that focus the image out in front of the lens. Well mine doesn’t. So your angle of entry is fairly narrow while mine is very wide. You can’t see the image as a composition. I’ve learned to see the image without the camera. I use one lens in Florida: the wide angle.
Why Florida landscapes as a niche?
Florida landscapes are unique to the world. There’s nothing like this anywhere. You can go to the Rocky Mountains, you can go to Switzerland, you can go to Afghanistan and there’s no other place in the world like this. People don’t realize how unique Florida is.
How do you choose your locations?
My wife (Niki) and I just have to go venture and explore. I kind of have an eye for these sorts of things (smiles).
How many trips do you take each year?
Last year I did too many. We had, at one point in time, seven museum shows going on at the same time. This year, we were out in CA for six weeks, we did a few shoots at Big Cypress and did three trips up to the Suwannee area. The problem is, I have to process the film and then print them. I just can’t make very many prints physically.
Is that why you have to limit your trips?
Yes. This last trip, I shot maybe 20 good images and I’ll have to print maybe four of them. I don’t shoot bad shots. The one I’m starting on today will probably take me two to three days before it’s finished. I can do a digital file in a half hour because it’s so simple. With my techniques, you have to have the time. This last trip it took me a week to process 80 negatives. And then you have to proof them, that takes another week. And then if I want to print them, that can take up to four months. With digital, I could have done it all in about a week.
Then why go through this laborious process?
Nothing can duplicate it. Digital can’t duplicate it. The camera you buy for $70,000 can’t duplicate this.
You don’t seem phased getting waist-deep in the swamp to take these photos. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever encountered in the wild?
The last three trips I’ve taken to Suwannee, I was up to my chest actually. I haven’t been bitten by much. I was hit by a water moccasin. I was actually getting into my car. It was at night before the sun came up. You never go outside in the Everglades at night without a flashlight and that was the day I was going to see the ghost orchid with Mike Owens. I was so excited and I didn’t get a flashlight and stepped on the snake. He hit my on the heel at the bone and just bounced back off. It was amazing how much force it had just to leave those two small holes. But it hurt for a few weeks and I didn’t have to go to the hospital or anything. I was fine.
Any tips for budding landscape photographers?
I suggest to people who want to shoot Florida landscapes that they need to get a wide-angle lens, put a piece of tape over the viewfinder and shoot. Pretty soon you’ll start to see what the camera is seeing. I’ll take anywhere from 2-10 shots but I very seldom take a shot that I can’t use.