Photographer Clyde Butcher on finding beauty in natural chaos

It made a strange sort of sense to call up the legendary landscape photographer Clyde Butcher just as Hurricane Matthew was about to pass by the state he's called home for over nearly 30 years. Because, throughout his career, he's specialised in documenting the beautiful, undisturbed chaos of the natural world. This isn't the bright, sweaty Florida you think you know. Drained of color and turned into stunning, nearly life-size works of art, Clyde's images reflect the wild, untamed beauty of the Everglades.

With prints up to 5x9 feet in scale, Butcher’s work is a masterclass in immersion photography. A trip to his Big Cypress Gallery is the closest thing you'll get to the real experience of wading through Florida’s swamps and dunes, without ever actually taking a dip. But if you’re feeling braver, he also offers wildly successful swamp walks out back. Clyde spoke to Us of America about his work and his journey so far, as well as his passion for environmentalism.

Were you always fascinated by the natural world? Did you grow up somewhere particularly rural?

Well, yes and no. From when I was born until when I was about 9, we lived in Kansas City, but there was a forest right next to the house. Then from when I was about 9 until 13, we lived in the Southern parts of Kentucky and Ohio. My dad was working on building nuclear plants, and those plants are built in wilderness areas, so they don’t affect people.

I was into archery, so my friends and I would take our bows and arrows and go looking for rabbits and squirrels in the woods. I was always chasing around. When I was, I think, 9, my folks took me on a trip to the National Parks out west, and I was actually photographing those when I was 9 or 10. So I was always interested in the environment.

Even at that time, did you feel a strong connection with the natural world? You’ve spoken about having an almost spiritual link to it. Was that always there?

Oh yeah, it’s always been there. In fact, when I was in college, I was dating my wife, and we had dates in Yosemite, in a sleeping bag on the floor of the woods, looking at the stars at night. We’ve always been very oriented towards the environment.

I started photographing when I was in college, which I used for [my work] as an architectural major. But I didn’t really know how to do really good perspective drawings, so I would build architectural models and I would photograph them, and that would be my presentation.

At the same time, I saw Ansel Adams’ work in Yosemite, and I started taking pictures of nature besides just the models, and I’ve really kept exploring that ever since I gave up architecture in 1969, when I began to do my art photography full-time.

Was it an easy decision to move into a new life path?

It was an easy decision, but it wasn’t very easy doing it. [Laughs.] I had a friend who held an out-door art show outside of a grocery store, and I asked him to come with me and buy some frames and put my pictures on it, and they sold.

This was in 1969, and I said “Well, I could do as well as this making money in architecture”. But with architecture, [if you’re] not the head of a firm, you’re kind of in the menial parts of employment. So I decided to do this full-time, and it was quite an adventure.

And were you still shooting in color at that point?

I started out in black and white in 1961, and shot with black and white until about '71, but then I wanted to make a living. I had to feed the family. [Laughs.] So I went to color, in order to match the gold couches and the avocado refrigerators and the shag carpets. We were raising our kids on sailboats for many years — to get away from people. So we decided to come to Florida for the sailing. I didn’t photograph anything for probably three or four years, because I didn’t think there was anything here I could photograph. So I started photographing the beaches and the sunsets and the normal stuff in color, and then I met a couple of really interesting people.

[Photographer] Oscar Thompson had a camera shop in Fort Myers, and he was looking at these slides and I was kind of looking over his shoulder, and I said, “Whoa, you’ve just been to Africa.” And he looked at me kind of funny and said, “No, that’s just down the road here — the Everglades”. I said he should take me down there someday.

So we got in his truck and he took me down, and he started introducing me to the Everglades. I was photographing it until 1986, [when] my son was killed — a car hit and killed him, a drunk driver, and at that point in time what was important [to me] was to tell a story about Florida. Because people were starting to tear down forests and just do what people do. And I decided to start shooting in black and white — color was doing great as far as sales, but it wasn’t telling the story. My wife and my artist friends thought I was a little crazy, but I took all my color work to the dump and watched the machine run over everything, about $300/400k worth of the stuff, and I started doing black and white. And it was amazing, the first art show I went to, my sales were much the same as [my] color [photos], which was exciting.

So in about 1989 I got involved with the Water Management District here in Florida and the Everglades restoration, and I donated framed pictures to the water management district’s building. People didn’t know what the Everglades was, and what my work actually started showing people was that there was something more to the Everglades than just swamps.

It was gorgeous, so it was really pretty neat to see that whole transition happen. People started loving Florida, started getting excited about it — and my work helped quite a bit in the idea of spending money to keep it clean and bring it back to its natural state.

You've spoken about how important that natural state is to you as a photographer, and wading through the scene to try and capture the right moment...

The way I do it is I’m usually in the water, but I’m trying to get people to have the feeling of being in there [too]. A lot of people are afraid of the snakes and the gators and that sort of thing. But my work gives you a feeling of being there, and draws you in and gets you excited about it. We started this gallery in Big Cypress and we started giving swamp walks. Because people were afraid of getting into the swamps, so we introduced people to it by giving them walks.

The first year we did it, it was 12 people on Labor Day weekend, and then I think in about three years we did about a thousand people in three days, so we’ve really been trying to get people in touch with the environment. Because you really have to be in it and feel it to get in touch with it. Between the photography and the taking people in, I think we’re changing the importance of the environment for people.

And I guess when you’re out there shooting, is the camera almost incidental? Is it more about the instinctive feeling of being in that moment?

I basically don’t use the camera for composition. I’m just walking along and all of a sudden I'll stop and I’ll say, “This is it.” I put the tripod down, focus the camera, and hopefully take the picture. Now sometimes that doesn’t come together. I mean, I have one image that I took in the same spot for nine years before I got the picture. [Laughs.] Which is probably the longest one. So there’s a lot of patience involved in what I do — persistence.

So how do you know when you finally have it? Is it possible to even articulate that feeling?

I don’t think I can. If one can explain art, it probably wouldn’t be art. [Laughs.] I just feel that I've got it. It’s a feeling I’m trying to capture, not just a composition. My compositions are very complicated, I might say. They’re not just an object. It’s a feeling.

And they’re huge too, right? When they’re presented and put on display. How important is the scale and size of the finished presentation?

One of the reasons I make them big is so that you can’t see them. Does that make any sense at all? Because people don’t understand how they see. You always see four to five degrees. So when you’re going along in nature, you’re scanning, and you’re putting this image together in your brain, and so a large picture gives it the same thing, where you have to scan it and it helps you get that feeling of nature. If people didn’t scan when they’re driving, we’d have a lot of crashes. [Laughs.]

The thing is that nature hasn’t been manipulated. It’s chaos. But it’s the natural order, biologically. So my thing is to try to make compositions and feelings within this chaos, and it’s something that’s just intuitive. It’s not something I think you could get in design, you just have to feel it.

You’re also a passionate environmentalist, but living under a state governor who has been personally described as an “environmental disaster”. What’s the mood like on the ground right now? Is the environment in Florida getting the funding it deserves?

Of course not. We’re winning [so far]. We just passed that amendment on solar power [*Amendment 4 makes solar and renewable energy equipment on commercial buildings exempt from property taxes — likely encouraging Florida businesses and corporations to invest in solar panels], but now there’s a new amendment that [will give] power companies total control over solar. And we’re fighting that, so that the power companies don’t discourage people putting on solar.

The problem with environmentalists is that we don’t make any money from doing this, while the people we’re fighting [against] are making money doing what they’re doing. So the power companies here in Florida are spending $22 million in advertising to get this bill passed, and we’re spending our energies explaining to people that it’s a bad bill, and of course we don’t have any money. [Laughs.]

But we have our Facebook, and we posted one little thing about it — we have 150k people who viewed it, and we’re working on another one that we hope to get half a million people [watching]. Because it sounds like what the power companies are doing, the main thing, is that they’re advertising with lies to make people think they should vote for it. So we’re having to convince people to vote ‘no' on it. It’s tough.

The industry is trying to make money, and it’s much cheaper to throw things away than it is to make things right. And it’s always going to be a battle. No matter where you are, what country you’re in, it’s just human nature. People have always thrown stuff in the river and the oceans. And it’s just a tough road to try to convince people that, in the long run, it’s cheaper to re-use things and not throw things away.

Global warming is something I’m very passionate about. And sometimes I think our government is trying to create global warming, because there are so many solutions to it. It’s just money, and the lobbyists are really powerful. And some of the people who run our government are pretty dumb. [Laughs.]

And I imagine it’s easy to get hugely demoralised, when you’re fighting against so much power and wealth in that way.

Well, there’s always hope. And every once in a while you come across people with insight and passion, and things do get done. But, in the environment, you win a fight, and then ten years later you have to do the same fight over again.

People don’t understand where their oxygen comes from. Look at a space station — they’ve got to take oxygen up there. People don’t realise that the earth doesn’t get re-supplied. We’ve only got what we’ve got. People in the space stations wouldn’t last very long if they couldn’t re-supply it. And we act like we’re a space station and we don’t need supplies.

My first real thought about the environment was probably in 1968 when we first saw the earth from the moon — the Apollo program. It was pretty impressive seeing that we’re this blue globe sitting in the universe. And the fragility of it. We just don’t realise how fragile it is.

That’s a really beautiful metaphor for it all, I think.

Well we just need to tell people that. Because we don’t have a supply ship.


See more about Clyde's work, his two galleries, and his swamp walks at ClydeButcher.com, and check out his Facebook for more on his work and activism.