Few people I have met have such fascinating tales as Clyde Butcher. He has been run out of the swamp by a territorial hillbilly with a shotgun, only to later purchase the same island he was chased off of. When trapped waist deep in mud, he sacrificed his wedding ring to escape the quicksand-grip of the mangroves. He has swum with aggressive alligators and fought off curious ones with a stick. All in pursuit of the perfect picture.
There’s no mistaking world-renowned nature photographer Clyde Butcher when he walks into a room. His strong, stoutly build makes a statement, only eclipsed by the profound wisdom in his eyes. When he commands your gaze, it becomes clear there is a perpetual depth to this man that leaves an unsettling feeling in your bones. His achievements alone speak of an experienced, worldly person. He has collected awards ranging from the Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Nature Photography Association to being named Humanitarian of the Year by the International University in 2005 and was even presented with the Ansel Adams Conservation Award from the Sierra Club. But his trophies have to be the least interesting thing about him.
Butcher has a dark edge to him; like he has seen the world in ways others could only dream. He has shaken hands with swamp people and former presidents. He is adventurous enough to drag a canoe through chest-deep water in the Everglades, yet patient enough to wait a week for the perfect light to take one impeccable shot. Butcher has led the way in bringing back the art of old-school photography, while fighting to persevere the last remaining natural landscapes of America. He has witnessed the unrelenting beauty of life in the form of untouched nature and felt the heartbreak life can bring when he senselessly lost his only son. He is easily one of the most interesting people on the planet.
Butcher was the guest speaker at Seminole Campus, last Wednesday for St. Petersburg College’s Village Square Series. The topic of the night was titled, “Preserving Eden,” where he spoke about his inspiration, technique and conservation effort in Florida to a packed room of photographry enthusiasts and nature buffs.
When I sat down with Mr. Butcher, I was still a bit awe-struck by his presence. But the moment he spoke, there was something engaging about him. His bushy, white beard and kind, rough voice painted a picture of a warm old man who would tell humorous, profanity laced stories like your grandfather. When he speaks to someone, they are the only person in the room.
While Butcher is hailed as a photography icon and humanitarian, he does not find those accomplishments to be the most satisfying part of his life.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is being an educator. With art, humanitarianism, the environment, basically trying to educate people about the world. But people are not listening.”
While contemplating how to hold the public’s attention, he let out a rough, deep chuckle after nearly every statement, and asked his wife of over 50 years, Niki, how she thought they could make people listen, “Being a dictator?”
Niki smiled, and responded,” Well, what we feel is that people listen to things they love. If they love something they’ll hear you. If you show them ugly things, they put up a wall. That’s why Clyde photographs the beauty of nature, not the destruction of nature. He feels if people see how beautiful it is, they’ll want to save it. They’ll identify with it, and they’ll understand it better, and they’ll get curious about it. And getting curious about it means they’ll learn the biology. They’ll go out and take the swamp walk; they’ll get into it and connect. And, so, to us, that’s all we can do as an individual.”
The “swamp walks” Niki refers to are eco-swamp tours through Big Cypress National Preserve behind Clyde’s gallery in Ochopee, Fla., led by Mr. Butcher himself. He finds this is one of the best ways to educate people, even though it can be the most difficult.
“[S]ome people, the adventurous ones, will go along with the group, but by themselves they have a problem,” said Butcher. “That’s one of the things that photographs do, it takes people where they normally don’t go.”
With his photography, he is able to leave a lasting impression on anyone who witnesses the haunting blacks, greys, and whites in his photos. While many find the landscape of Florida too overwhelming to photograph, Butcher finds it to be the perfect backdrop.
“I look for chaos, because if you find chaos, you find biological order. If you don’t find chaos, it’s usually screwed up by man,” Butcher explained. “Also, when I look for something, it’s a feeling. Usually, I have to make order out of this chaos. Everything I do is point and shoot. I find a place that feels good and I set the camera and take the picture.”
It is not an easy task for Butch to capture that moment, either. He carries an average of 60 pounds of gear with him. He works with old-school photography equipment like his Deardorf, ranging in sizes from 5×7 to 11×14, and his massive Wisner 12×20. The negatives these kinds of cameras create allow Butcher to produce enormous 40×60-inch prints. He likes the onlooker to become immersed in his photos. Lost in the detail, like they would if they were standing in front of the natural monument first-hand. But these types of pictures can be costly.
“I don’t take a lot of pictures compared to the amount of time I’ve spent in places…the most I’ve ever shot was 12 [pictures],” said Butcher. “A typical day is maybe two pictures…Every time I click its 10 dollars. One trip, I took 1,700 pictures that was $17,000 in film, in one month.”
The cost has been worth it, though. His photos have helped lead the way on many conservation projects and he hopes to see his work inspire more places to be preserved for their natural beauty.
“Hopefully, soon, with some of these places that aren’t parks, my photographs might help people conserve them as parks,” said Butcher. “People don’t understand how fragile Florida is. All they see is sunshine…they don’t understand what they are doing is they are destroying the environment that they want to come here for.”
Later that night he would answer the question to the biggest pollution problem in the simplest terms possible.
“Too much shit,” Butcher told a chuckling audience. “We’re basically working on the Roman’s plumping system, it hasn’t changed since 2000 years ago. You can’t have this many people and have a civilized, healthy situation without cost. And people don’t want to pay for anything.”
Perhaps the most important photograph that has inspired Butcher in his quest is a picture he will never be able to take: A shot of earth from space.
“This was really important in the environmental movement, when we first saw the earth from the moon. And we said “hey, we’re just a little plant out in the middle of space. We have no more resources, that’s it,” Butcher stated as he concluded his speech. “And we have to treat this thing as if it’s round… Everything that comes around goes around. We have to start thinking about it, not treating it as if it’s flat.”
Clyde Butcher is a man with a million stories and a million life lessons to teach us. His purpose in life is simple and clear: take beautiful pictures, while saving the natural world.