Clyde Butcher never expected that one day he would be considered the foremost landscape photographer in America today. But when fate combined with opportunity, he stepped up to the challenge.
“When you find a door that swings open for you, you should go through it,” he said. “If it’s a door that leads you towards making a difference in the world, step through that door and just keep going as far as you can.”
For a time, Butcher wasn’t quite sure where his life would lead. Landscape photography wasn’t much of a profession; it was considered more of a craft than art. Ansel Adams helped change that with breathtaking photographs of mountain ranges, valleys, meadows and rivers across the country. But Butcher was in Florida where he struggled to find much that inspired him.
“It took me four years to begin to really see what was around me,” he explained. “I learned you’ve got to get out of the car and actually get in the water. You’ve got to play with the gators and snakes and become one with the scene, and not many people are willing to do that.”
Butcher became obsessed with the Florida Everglades. He would spend hours, day after day, waist deep in the swamp, experimenting with light and composition before understanding how to allow the beauty of the region to reveal itself.
“It occurred to me that you just can’t shoot in color there,” says Butcher. “Because there’s so much green it just makes you want to throw up. So, I thought if I went back to my roots in black and white, people would be able to see the Everglades with a depth and dimension they hadn’t ever noticed.”
Another change he made was in the actual size of his photographs. Butcher found that large photos allowed the viewer to be immersed by the image, to feel that they were part of the environment. The larger images revealed the infinite textures and the true beauty of nature.
Butcher began creating super-sized images up to 5 feet high and 9 feet wide that required a larger darkroom and presented other challenges.
“When I started doing these large photographs, they didn’t make any of the stuff I needed,” he said. “Processing trays, washing bins, even papers were all way too small. So, I had to go build it all myself. See, you can’t let yourself be restricted by what exists, thinking if they don’t make it then you can’t do it. We all need to realize that we are fully capable of creating progress.”
Butcher began to believe that the way to transform landscape photography from a craft to an art was through passion. He became determined to create prints with a purpose.
“It’s interesting because if you ask me what I am, I’ll tell you I’m a teacher,” he said. “I want to teach people to appreciate our environment. Photography is just my method for teaching that lesson.”
Clyde Butcher is a strong advocate of conservation efforts and uses his work to promote awareness and responsibility to protect our natural treasures. He has used his photography to create award-winning environmental documentaries for public television, to publish numerous books of photos, and to display in museums across the country.
At the age of 79, and dealing with the effects of a stroke, many wondered if it was time for Butcher to retire. He says it is simply time for him to adapt.
“Last December, I got myself a cheap walker and use it to get myself up to my waist in water about 80 feet from shore,” he said. “It’s wonderful. I just don’t see why anybody would want to retire when you still get to do what you love. I hope I never have to stop.”