Award-winning photographer Clyde Butcher, known for his stunning black-and-white images and adventurous Everglades Swamp Walks, opens up about staying true to his art, why he won’t return to color and the best time to take a picture. Edited interview excerpts follow.
Best time to take a picture is…when you’re breathing. Follow the light, not your perception of what you want to do. For instance, people will say they want to photograph in the woods today. But when it’s bright and sunny, don’t photograph in the woods; there’s too much contrast. Now, if you are out in the prairies and it’s flat, then you want bright sunlight.
Memorable experience: In August 1983, taking the dunes shot up in the panhandle, after waiting from sunrise to sunset for five days in the same spot. All of a sudden everything happened for about 20 seconds and that was it. It was exhilarating. The way the light came through the clouds, it was a spiritual thing that happened. It was a color shot that I converted to black and white (pictured below).
Black and white versus color: Color is a reproduction of nature, while black and white is an interpretation, there’s much more creativity involved. I look for textures and forms and shapes and light, where color photographers are looking for colors. I used to photograph the redwoods in color and in two weeks I would take two pictures that were successful; in black and white, I can take 50.
Three favorite places to take pictures: Aside from the Everglades, it would be the Redwoods, Yosemite and Death Valley, which is really primeval.
What he would love to photograph: Alaska, from the rainforest on the southern end to the glaciers on the other end and everything in between.
On staying true to his art: A lot of organizations ask me to do projects and I don’t accept fees because when you do something you want to do it for what it is, not for what people think they want. If I do something they don’t like, it doesn’t matter because they didn’t pay for it.
Three people he wishes he could take on a swamp walk: President Obama so he could see [the importance of the Everglades]. It would be nice to be out there with Ansel Adams, to meet him in my territory, not in Yosemite. He would have a ball. And I would like to take my aunt, who’s 96. She’s afraid of the swamp, and it would be nice to have her see how special it is.
Lucky charm: My wife, Niki. It’s true. In May 2013, we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary with a four-month trip out west. When we were in Sequoia National Park, after a day of hiking at about 8,500 feet, Niki went outside and spotted these [green corn lilies] and said, “You’ve got to come out here!” I was so tired and I don’t do close-ups, but I took the picture. The little water drops give it life and just the shape and the shadows in it—it’s one of the best exposures of our trip. It has sold more than anything here at the gallery since it’s been out (pictured above).