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Clyde Butcher: a passionate man capturing the Florida of our dreams

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image Visitors to Clyde Butcher's studio packed around to hear him talk photography, the environment, and getting wet in the swamp. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Clyde Butcher is an increasingly rare photographer today, favoring old-style, large format cameras over digital.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

People packed into the intimate, maze-like studio creating a certain unusually polite but chaotic atmosphere, contrasting with the beauty and tranquility of the incomparable art displayed on the walls. People lined up to see the bearded man they admired, yet while waiting their turn, remained a respectful distance from him, despite that his very human and personal nature did not seem to demand it.

Many people had questions and wanted photographs of themselves with the man and Jackie smiled and chatted with each, holding cameras and recording moments and taking it all in stride. If the waves of people stressed her out, she gave no indication of that. But then for a woman who spent her childhood growing up on a sailboat with her parents, you wouldn’t expect that such things would impact her. Certainly waves, whether those of people or water, don’t seem to bother Jackie Butcher Obendorf, the daughter of Clyde Butcher.

On Saturday, Clyde Butcher, Florida’s most famous photographer and a man widely praised for his dedication in working to save the ever-dwindling wild places in a state like no other, opened the doors to his Venice studio for a book signing, a chance to chat and, perhaps most unique of all, an offer to tour his darkroom — the place where chemicals meet artistry to create images of incredible beauty that range in size from 8x10 inch prints to staggering 5 foot by 8 foot paper tapestries of whites, blacks, grays and astonishing detail. 

His images are the Florida we see in our mind’s eye and in our dreams. They record moments of beauty, peace, and tranquility found in the Everglades and on seemingly untouched beaches. Butcher doesn’t just capture the beauty of Florida, he first gets into it, often wading chest deep into swamps and packing his large format cameras into places that few people are willing to go. And then, after all of that effort, he depends upon his skill and his eye because his cameras don’t have little LCDs to instantly reveal what he captured. He finds out only later, once the magic of the chemicals reveal the images in his expansive darkroom.

Clyde and Niki Butcher have been married for 50 years. He was trained as an architect, even having a hand in the design of San Francisco’s iconic TransAmerica Tower, but was inspired by famed photographer Ansel Adams. He began down the path of a photographer, selling his images at art and street fairs. Before long, he realized that he could earn a better living as a photographer than as an architect.

Mitch Traphagen PhotoLike his unique images that are today burned from a photographic enlarger the size of a mid-sized car, Butcher was not one to think small. In the early 1970s, as a photographer he built a business selling his work as home decor to large department store chains. The business grew, as did the stress of running it.  He sold the business and built a sailboat, eventually moving it and his young family from California to Florida.

Clyde and Niki lost their 17-year-old son to a drunk driver in 1986 and Clyde retreated into the wild places for solace. It was there he found a way to restore his soul. It was there that he truly found a way to share what he saw and his passion with others through his photographs.

“Photographing landscape has been my love for 45 years,” Butcher recently posted to his Facebook page. “I have been fortunate to see so much beauty in my life. I’d like future photographers to have that joy too. In order for that to happen, we need to pay attention to the health of our environment. The beauty and peace it provides us can not be measured in dollars.”

His list of awards and accolades runs long, illustrating his deep commitment to the environment and a sincere appreciation for the beauty he captures. All of that comes through in his images, of course. He has completed six Public Broadcasting programs on Florida’s environment; three of them award-winning documentaries. He has won awards from the State of Florida to the Sierra Club and most everything in between, including recognition from state and national leaders. He was asked by the United Nations to photograph mountains in Cuba. He has traveled America and has recorded priceless moments of places threatened yet affixed in the American psyche. We are a nation of people defined by our nation’s resources and beauty. And that beauty exists in a Florida swamp, a field in Iowa or in the mountains of the west. It is everywhere, it is us and it is ours. Hopefully forever.

“I use my photographs as tools for conservation,” Butcher said.

Jackie smiled, answered endless questions and snapped photos. People lined up with books, calendars, even postcards, waiting for a signature and the chance to spend a few moments chatting with an admirable man. People posed, chatted and shook his hand. Some may have asked about the Swamp Walks offered by his studio located in the Everglades. Although Butcher doesn’t usually lead the walks anymore, he knows the swamp like few others. And that intimate knowledge, whether or not he is along, is shared among those who venture off into the wilderness, experiencing nature while immersed in it.  Safely, of course, but immersed nonetheless.

“You’ll get wet,” he would likely tell them.

It’s not easy restoring a soul through the windshield of a car passing by on a highway. To do it, to really do it, you have to wade into the waters, sometimes chest deep, perhaps a baptismal for the soul. The value of what you return with cannot be measured. And sometimes, with talent and passion, mere moments can be captured forever. For Clyde Butcher it is not a digital, virtual process, it is letting it into your heart and then pouring it back out with chemicals and artistry emerging into something incomparable, something wonderful: a beautiful, fleeting moment captured forever.

Mitch Traphagen PhotoClyde Butcher’s Venice gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is located at 237 Warfield Avenue, an easy drive from anywhere in South Hillsborough.

His Big Cypress Gallery is located in Ochopee on U.S. Highway 41 near mile marker 54.5 in the Everglades.

Butcher will be in his Big Cypress Gallery on Nov. 29 and 30 to meet and greet visitors and to exhibit new photographs. He will also personalize any holiday purchases. His 5x8 foot images can run into the thousands of dollars (and with good reason) but he also offers a unique treasure of books and smaller prints, created with no less passion or attention to detail. In addition, staff members will also be offering swamp walks on both days at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

For information, call 239-695-2428 (Everglades), 941-486-0811 (Venice), or email info@clydebutcher.com. His website is located at www.clydebutcher.com.

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