This story appeared in the February 2014 issue of Naples Illustrated.
Photography by Vanessa Rogers
Nestled in the heart of the Everglades, just a short drive from Naples’ pristine beaches, you’ll find one of Florida’s mystical wonders: Big Cypress Swamp. This undisturbed swath of wilderness is where Clyde Butcher, renowned landscape photographer, finds sanctuary. The ancient cypress trees here serve as nature’s canopy to an abundance of wildlife, including stalwart alligators, snakes and even panthers.
At first blush the murky swamp can appear daunting, until you step inside its natural beauty. On a slightly overcast day in late November, I joined the award-winning photographer and passionate conservationist on a swamp walk to experience it firsthand.
Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery sits on 13 acres he owns within Big Cypress National Preserve. He began taking swamp walks nearly 30 years ago, and later his gallery started to offer guided tours (though Butcher no longer leads them) so the public could share in his fascination.
At 71, Butcher has trudged through these often knee-deep waters countless times, yet he still enters the swamp with a boyish sense of wonder. We have no GPS device to guide us. No compass. Just a big walking stick to steady our steps, along with Butcher’s tracking instincts. Has he ever gotten lost? “We never get lost, we get misplaced,” he says with a slow grin.
Once we lose sight of the opening from which we entered, a sense of calm envelops the swamp; it assuages any fear of missteps or potential encounters with predators. Aside from the rhythmic sloshing of water as we wade through the wilderness, there are few sounds and no rush to break the silence with words—as if we were being gently hushed by nature.
For Butcher, a self-described “feely” person, the wilderness is where he feels most at home. It served as his playground when he was a child and it would become a quiet confidant throughout his life.
“I was always wandering off in the woods,” says Butcher, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. “When I was a little kid, about 4 or 5, I would go into the forest and my mom would be panicking, trying to find me.” He recalls family trips to national parks where as a boy he would pull out his Brownie Hawkeye camera, excited to snap the landscape.
While Butcher graduated college with a degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University, it didn’t take long before he returned to capturing nature with an exquisite level of detail through his black-and-white, large-format photography.
“I remember seeing Clyde’s first black-and-white photographs when we were dating and thinking he’s better than Ansel Adams,” says Niki Butcher, Clyde’s wife of 50 years. “But I was in love, and I still am, so I’m kind of prejudiced,” she says with a soft chuckle.
In the early years, Butcher would emulate Adams and fellow landscape photographers Edward Weston and Wynn Bullock. He recalls showcasing his photographs of Florida’s wildlands at art shows and being disappointed when people assumed they were of Africa or the Amazon rainforest. “People just didn’t understand what Florida is,” he says.
While his passion to show them never wavered, for many years he struggled to make a living. At times, he and his wife and two children lived in a tent trailer or on a sailboat, as that’s all they could afford. They chose to view it as an adventure. Still, Butcher switched to color photography in the ’70s to try to make more sales.
“All my successful color photos were of sunsets and beaches, what everybody wants above their couches. I was still photographing the swamps, and a few people we buying them, but it wasn’t a big thing,” Butcher says.
On June 15, 1986, everything changed. Butcher’s 17-year-old son Ted was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. It was Father’s Day. “My dad disappeared in the swamp that summer,” recalls Jackie Butcher Obendorf, Clyde Butcher’s daughter, who manages his gallery business. She recalls a shift in her father after he emerged from the swamp that year, a renewed focus on “doing good for the planet and leaving a legacy.”
“I felt that going back to black and white would create a oneness with nature and people would understand it better,” he says. For Butcher, it is about capturing emotion evoked by nature. “When you’re taking a picture there’s a focal point of the image but when you’re doing one of feeling, there’s no focal point of the feeling,” Butcher says. “I put my arms out, embrace it. That’s how I compose a picture. That’s it. Then I set the camera down and take a picture. It’s really an instinctive thing.”
His instincts have served him well. Butcher has received wide acclaim and numerous awards for his photography, including the Artist Hall of Fame award from the state of Florida, the Distinguished Artist Award from the Florida House in the nation’s capitol and the Ansel Adams Conservation Award from the Sierra Club for raising awareness of the environment through his photography.
“I want people to get what Florida is all about, the relationship of the trees and the plants and sky and the water. It’s an emotional feeling of being primeval,” says Butcher, as we emerge from the swamp, drenched in watery mud but exhilarated.
“I only enjoy areas that are basically ancient. This area here is just like it has been for 10,000 years. Some of these cypress trees are as big in circumference as the biggest redwood tree, two or three thousand years old. It’s just awesome.”