Butcher's latest photography exhibit aims to display why local land deserves to be saved.
It’s hard to find people as passionate about saving the environment as nature photographer Clyde Butcher.
“Global warming doesn’t have any border,” he says “You can’t put a fence up against global warming.”
Butcher lives with his wife, Niki, in a 900-square-foot house in Venice that’s completely run by solar power. Last year the couple actually supplied electricity to Florida Power & Light Co., which earned them a $100 check from the company.
They also drive a plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt that gives them 60 miles on a single charge. In 2017, Butcher says the couple drove 10,000 miles but only spent $220 total on gas.
At his St. Armands gallery, the photographer’s latest exhibit, “Clyde Butcher: Myakka River, a Florida Treasure ” channels his love for the environment into efforts to conserve Florida’s first state-designated wild and scenic river.
A PHOTOGRAPHER’S PARADISE
Both Clyde and Niki are photographers (Niki shoots in color and paints over her photographs, so their styles are vastly different) and they agree that Florida is a special place for anyone with a camera.
Although it would be easy to assume a Floridian nature photographer would be inspired by the ocean (and even though he’s greatly influenced by water — he calls it the “essence of Florida”) , Clyde opts for the more primitive inland areas like Myakka River State Park because he feels most inspired by untouched land.
“It’s hard to find in the world, a natural system,” he says. “How many natural systems do you find in Sarasota?”
Most are man-made or modified, such as Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, which all have their place, he says. But ever since he took his first walk in Big Cypress National Preserve with Florida photographer Oscar Thompson in 1984, something changed within him. He became entranced with the beauty and mystery of the swamp, and he set out to capture the emotions that landscape stirred within him through imagery.
Clyde says he’s yet to tire of photographing Myakka because it’s different every time he goes — different light, different wildlife, different clouds, different water levels.
Niki says the couple now understands the two major types of landscape photography because they started their career shooting out West in California, Oregon, Arizona, etc. Florida is a whole different ball game.
“Florida is a biological state,” she says. “Most places people go to photograph are geological. In Florida you have to get into nature, you can’t stand outside of it and take a picture like you can in Grand Teton National Park.”
Without grand canyons or breathtaking mountain ranges to photograph, Floridian photographers are challenged with finding less obvious landscapes to shoot.
“Here, you have to find the subtleties,” Clyde says.
PLACE OF HEALING
In 1986, the Butchers’ 17-year-old son, Ted, was killed by a drunk driver. Life as they knew it ceased to exist, and Clyde needed a way to cope.
So he retreated into nature. He spent hours upon hours taking in the tranquility of Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades, and the experience was so transformative, he decided to become strictly a black-and-white photographer.
He destroyed all his color works, purchased an 8-by-10-inch view camera and enlarger and got to work.
Clyde first got into black-and-white photography in the ’60s, when he saw an Ansel Adams photography exhibit in Yosemite National Park. He was so impressed by the work that he wanted to give landscape photography a try, but previously he had only photographed his own architectural works (he realized only after graduating from California Polytechnic State University with an architecture degree that he couldn’t draw, so he photographed his models instead).
He left architecture in 1970 to showcase his black-and-white photos at art festivals, but he continued to also shoot in color throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. It wasn’t until his son’s death that black-and-white photography took on a deeper meaning.
“He feels black and white tells the story better,” Niki says. “If you like color, you’re going to look at the turquoise or the pink (in a work), but you’re not going to see the scene, you’ll see the color. But with black and white you see the continuity of the whole environment.”
Shooting in the Everglades with this technique healed his soul, his wife says, and he went through a similar process all over again when he had a stroke in May 2017.
To cope with the stress of readjusting to life post-stroke, Clyde started spending long days photographing Myakka. When he came home, he was always completely energized.
“Not being able to be physically like you were before is frustrating and can make you angry and sad,” Niki says of people who go through health problems such as a stroke. “But he would come back from Myakka just glowing because he felt so good.”
He’s lost half the function of his right hand, so it’s hard to load film and carry all of his equipment these days, but Clyde isn’t discouraged. He simply brings his walker with him as he wades into swampy waters to get the perfect shot.
“I’ve ruined a couple — walkers aren’t designed for water,” he says with a grin.
ART AS ACTIVISM
It wasn’t until after Ted’s death that Clyde began truly championing environmental causes.
“You start learning what’s important,” he says. “You start understanding what life is all about when it takes something away instantly.”
Ever since, Clyde has dedicated much of his time sans camera to giving environmental talks, sharing the dangers of global warming and what we can do to stop it.
When people look at his art, he hopes they begin to understand why the world is a beautiful place worth saving. The challenge, however, is to inspire them enough to take action.
“That costs money, and people aren’t into spending money on the environment,” he says.
During his work advocating for restoration of the Everglades, for example, he came across a community that was up in arms about a tax raise that would cost households an additional $7 a year to pay for conservation efforts. He was stunned that people weren’t willing to spare less than $10 paid once over the course of 12 months.
“You can spend $7 on one meal at McDonald’s,” he says.
This mindset is a problem in the U.S., he says, where people think it’s their American right to own a washing machine, two cars and a TV set. He argues adopting such a lifestyle is a privilege.
“It’s frustrating that people don’t understand that it’s our responsibility as individuals to help the world,” he says. “The world does an awful lot of stuff for us; why can’t we do something for it?”
But Clyde finds hope in the awareness brought about by his photography. He’s partnered with Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast for this exhibit to provide educational materials that will spread the word about the foundation’s mission to protect local land.
He explains his reasoning best.
“How many places in the world — in the universe — could be as nice as this?”