Clyde Butcher on the secret backstories of his most beautiful shots

For famed Floridian landscape photographer Clyde Butcher, it all comes down to instinct. As he revealed in his recent interview for Us of America, he refuses to use his camera for composition. “I put the tripod down, focus the camera, and hopefully take the picture.” Some are instant masterpieces, others not so much. There have even been times when it took him nine whole years before he finally perfected the shot he had long envisaged. What is guaranteed, however, is an interesting story. In the first of a series of features exploring the secret hidden stories behind the work of some of the world’s most renowned photographers, Clyde Butcher relays just how he came up with six of his most beautiful shots.

MOONRISE

For some time I had wanted to take a shot 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, set it up on top of my ten-foot wooden ladder, in order to get a perspective over the tops of the dwarf cypress trees, and waited. When the clouds cooperated to create a nice composition, I snapped the shutter…it didn’t work! I took the lens off, pried the shutter open, put the lens back on the camera, and used a dark slide as a shutter, guessing at the exposure time.

GATOR HOOK 1

When I took this photograph, Gator Hook was entering the last throes of the dry season. There were a few pools of water left, but for the most part everything was reaching toward the sky in search of rain. As I photographed this scene, a gator lying on the grass at the end of the pond eyed me suspiciously. This was his only source of water for miles around and he wasn’t taking it kindly that I was invading his territory.

CIGAR ORCHID POND

There are some places in the Big Cypress that I find, and then lose. This is one of them. I don’t carry a GPS tool with me, I just let the world present itself to me. Years ago when Oscar Thompson and I were swamping around we came across this scene. I didn’t have a camera with me, so no photo was taken. Later I tried to find it again and couldn’t. For years I would look for it and wasn’t able to find it. I could not erase the image from my mind, so I continued to try and find it. Finally, I found it but the light wasn’t right. Then I lost it. Finally, on a swamp excursion with some friends we came across the place I had wanted to photograph for so long and everything was perfect!

CONSERVATION 5

I was working with the South West Florida Water Management District to produce a series of photographs for the Fort Lauderdale International Airport. The focus was to present a collection of images that embodied pristine areas of the Everglades to people that may not travel there. The water was so pure in this area everything flourished; the ecosystem seemed to present itself for a portrait — as the clouds aligned I clicked the shutter.

OCHOPEE (top)

This photograph was taken on the side of the road. Some of the most beautiful scenes are not noticed when driving by them at 70 mph. This was one of the first black and white photographs I took with my 8”x 10” view camera after my son was killed by a drunk driver. This was also one of the photographs that encouraged me to change from color photography and begin, once again, to photograph with black and white film.

TAMIAMI TRAIL

The section of Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami runs through the Big Cypress Preserve and the Everglades National Park. As I travel it on my way to and from our gallery, I always keep my eye out for photographic opportunities. Summer thunderstorms in the morning are a rare thing in South Florida (normally they roll in during the late afternoon) – but this storm came up early. Realizing time was of the essence, I jumped out of the car and managed to get two shots in before it began to rain and I had to run for cover