Many of us may never wade into the alligator- and snake-infested swamps of South Florida or hike into the mountain wildernesses of the West. But through Clyde Butcher’s photographs, we can get a feeling of what we would see and of the great beauty that awaits in our natural environment.
Through November 8, visitors to the Boca Raton Museum of Art can vicariously travel from the lily-padded Everglades and Florida Keys’ beaches to the dramatic mountain ranges of Yosemite, Colorado and Utah, as well as redwood forests, the Chesapeake area woodlands and the Czech Republic.
Butcher’s photographs, some as large as 8 feet wide, envelop the viewer, making you feel that you are standing on the edge of the lake or cliff to discover the wonder of nature. After viewing the big pictures, people invariably move in for a closer look, noticing the detail in the grasses, craggy trees and glacier-carved mountains.
The influence of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston is obvious, as Butcher has photographed many of the same themes as these masters of photography: El Capitan and Yosemite; immense, sculpturally dramatic driftwood; and organic rock formations in Westons Beach 4 and Sand Dune 19, shot in 2007 in Death Valley.
As Ansel Adams did, Butcher lugs to his locations view cameras such as the Deardorff 11 x 14, and uses high-quality lenses to shoot on Kodak T-Max 100-sheet film for the best detail in his enlargements. In his 2,200-square-foot darkroom, Butcher has many enlargers, including one that he redesigned from a large copy camera. He has built a line of 4-foot-by-5-foot trays in which he and a darkroom assistant process large prints that are also toned with selenium to intensify the blacks and increase the tonal range.
Butcher was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1942, and graduated with a degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University. His interest in photography developed when he photographed his oversized architectural models in landscape settings. He also became fascinated with the landscape photography of Ansel Adams. He moved with his wife Niki to the Big Cypress Swamp National Preserve in Southern Florida, and he has been documenting wilderness ever since.
For the self-taught photographer, photographing nature is at once healing and his mission. “Wilderness, to me, is a spiritual necessity,” Butcher has said. “When my son was killed by a drunk driver, it was to the wilderness that I fled in hopes of regaining my serenity and equilibrium. The mysterious spiritual experience of being close to nature helped restore my soul. It was during that time [that] I discovered the intimate beauty of the environment. My experience reinforced my sense of dedication to use my art form of photography as an inspiration for others to work together to save nature’s places of spiritual sanctuary for future generations.”
In Loxahatchee River I (1991), the stillness of the scene is captivating, as the water reflects the temple of trees, and a partially submerged log leads one’s eye into the composition. The water’s impressionistic, dream-like effect was created by a 6-minute exposure, so that any movement of the water was smoothed, as if airbrushed.
I observed another museum visitor who was intently studying the photographs, and I asked him what he liked best about Butcher’s images. Harold Davis of Boynton Beach turned out to be a nature photographer and an ardent Butcher fan.
“Out West,” he said, “it is easy to take great photographs because the landscape is so dramatic. But in Florida, it is flat, and you have to wait for stormclouds to make an interesting composition.” Davis had a great point, and Butcher has emphasized the clouds by using a yellow, orange or red filter over his lens. This technique darkens blue areas, such as the sky and water. A red filter will also lighten green foliage, which is evident in several photographs.
“It’s all about the light! You have to have great light; it makes the image every time,” Davis added. Light creates texture with shadows, highlights edges and sets the mood. “Let there be light” may be Butcher’s mantra, as he wields it mightily.
Moonrise, a gelatin-silver print, was photographed in the Big Cypress National Preserve in 1986. At the bottom quarter of the tall print, grasses and bare trees point vertically toward the sky, where a central Rorschach test-like cloud is punctuated above by a three-quarter moon. The sky gradually fades from a deep rich gray, past the fluffy cloud formation to about a 20-percent pale gray, where it is met by the stick-like trees. Beautifully printed, this riveting photograph was chosen for the cover of the exhibition catalog.
Traditionally, gelatin-silver prints are considered to be finer-quality prints. However, compared to Butcher’s later large gelatin-silver prints, his archival inkjet prints have a better range of grays, blacks and detail in the highlight areas.
Large gelatin-silver prints are challenging – from difficulties in “burning in” (darkening) or “dodging” (lightening) specific areas, to transporting and processing the prints in large trays, and keeping the chemistry moving over the print to ensure even processing. So many things can go awry. A crimp in the paper can ruin the print, as can bumping the enlarger when dodging and burning or darkening an area too much.
Butcher does seem to have some difficulty with over-darkening areas, such that while he may have intended leading the viewer’s eye to certain areas of the photograph, it sometimes comes across as unnatural.
The 63-inch by 106-inch photograph Skillet Strand has an appealing subject matter in the fluttering white egrets resting in the Spanish-moss-draped trees and reflected in the water below, but the print quality leaves me wanting more. I would like to see details in the bird’s feathers, and, if the print were slightly darker, the trees’ branches and linear effect would be a stronger design feature against the dark, still water.
Over the past decade or more, extremely large photographic prints have been popular with art buyers, but, because of technical difficulties, quality is often sacrificed for size. At the Ansel Adams-Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition earlier this year at the Norton Museum of Art, the largest Adams print was less than 16 inches by 20 inches. Many of Butcher’s prints are excellent; only a handful could have been printed better.
Wendy Blazier, senior curator of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, said, “No one captures the Florida wilderness better than photographer Clyde Butcher.” Nineteenth-century naturalist and wilderness preservation activist John Muir may have captured the effect of Nature best: “In every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
Butcher has indeed created a treasure trove of nature photographs that fortunately he has shared with us.
CLYDE BUTCHER: WILDERNESS VISIONS runs through Nov. 8 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The museum in Mizner Park is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for senior citizens (65 and older), $4 per person for group tours and $4 for students. For more information, call (561) 392-2500, or visit www.bocamuseum.org.