The 'Ansel Adams of the Everglades'

Clyde Butcher hopes his images of south Florida will convince people that it's worth saving

In a quiet voice that belies his imposing presence, photographer and environmental activist Clyde Butcher explains how he became known as the Ansel Adams of the Everglades: "I never fully understood Florida until I got wet."

His subject is the beleaguered "River of Grass," which has been drained, channeled, and diked for human convenience - ominously, at the expense of the natural system on which the south Florida region's water supply depends.

Lugging a bulky Civil War-style camera behind him in a canoe or cart (depending on the season and the terrain - some areas are under water for all or part of the year), Mr. Butcher takes huge black-and-white portraits of wild Florida's turbulent clouds, delicate forests, and vast, wet prairies. The camera takes 12-by-20-inch negatives. "You have to make people fall in love with something to make them want to save it," he says.

In the struggle over the Everglades' fate, environmental groups like the Everglades Coalition and agribusinesses like the United States Sugar Corp. (under fire for water pollution) agree on at least one thing: Butcher's photographs capture a Florida beautiful enough to grace posters and corporate office walls - and, he hopes, beautiful enough to be worth saving.

Butcher's work is part of a traveling group show called "Expedition: Everglades - River of Grass" from the Sherry French Gallery in New York. The exhibit's appearance this spring at the capitol building in Tallahassee strategically coincided with the Florida legislative session, to keep Everglades restoration on lawmakers' minds.

"I thought he was the best photographer of the Glades," Ms. French says. "He literally lives there and understands the ecology."

"They just speak Florida," says Laurie Brown of the Brevard Museum of Art and Science in Melbourne about the giant photographs. "We hang them slightly low so you feel like you're walking right into the water."

Vice President Al Gore autographed several Butcher prints at his Everglades National Park speech in February, and Butcher has donated images to the Nature Conservancy, the Everglades Coalition, and Florida's state parks. He honored 105-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of the watershed book, "Everglades: River of Grass," on three recent birthdays.

Butcher's work is so popular that at Miami's prestigious Coconut Grove Arts Festival last February, he sold out the first day and drove 75 miles back home to frame more pictures.

Photos say, 'That's how it would be'

This mountain man in the flatlands is something of a legend in south Florida. Bill Hammond, board member of the South Florida Water Management District, even refers to Butcher's images as icons. "Clyde's work is affecting, and sort of ethereal. It creates an image in your mind that makes you say, 'That's how it would be, if I could only get there.' "

A personal tragedy propelled him into the project. After his teenage son was killed in a car crash with a drunk driver in 1986, he fled into the swamp. "I went off the deep end," he recalls. Piecing his life back together through his work, he decided to follow his dream of photographing only in black and white.

Given the brilliant blue and green landscape of the Everglades, Butcher's choice might seem puzzling at first. His pictures of dense grasses and stands of trees, however, have a clarity and focus that color photography cannot match. "People are in the gallery for 10 minutes before they realize it's not in color," he says. Now, he says, "a lot of people are trying to do what I do, because they didn't see it before. I didn't see it."

Capturing the 'real' Florida

Feathery cypress trees refract the brilliant sun into mere glints on the black water that submerges most of the property Butcher and his photographer wife, Niki, call home. "This is one of the prettiest spots in the Everglades," he says. "It really changes people's perspectives on what the Everglades are all about."

The Butchers built their house, studio, and their Big Cypress Gallery in 1993 within the Big Cypress National Preserve at an old tourist attraction on the Tamiami Trail, a narrow highway that stretches across the Everglades from Tampa to Miami. There they hold workshops in large-format photography, as well as open houses where visitors can see Butcher's staggering collection of printing, developing, and enlarging equipment.

Now regarded as the premier photographer of the Everglades, Butcher once considered sunsets on the beach the only thing worth photographing in Florida when he moved there from California in 1980 with Niki and their two children.

Then he began exploring and photographing the Big Cypress National Preserve and the other remaining fragments of the "real" Florida - not to be confused with golf courses.

"I got a feeling for what the whole system was about," he says. "I started educating myself, unfortunately." Development pressures on the south Florida wilderness became part of his consciousness, and he resolved, through his art, to be part of the solution.

"When I first came here, there were no cattails on the south side of the road," Butcher says while driving across the Everglades' sodden expanse. Acres of cattails have proliferated beyond their natural habitat to crowd out the native sawgrass - inhibiting water flow and undermining complex habitats. The cattails thrive in the excess nutrients contained in agricultural runoff. "I'm not sure there's a solution to it, other than making farming work. But no one knows how to do that."

Frustrated by what he sees as the lack of action on behalf of the Everglades, Butcher spends much of his time working for the south Florida environment. To those who donate money to a land-purchasing program, he gives in-kind gifts of his photographs. He is producing a book of his pictures, the profits of which will build boardwalks in the Everglades. He also speaks on Everglades issues and lobbies the Tallahassee Legislature.

Solution must be shared

"The thing that bothers me the most about Everglades restoration is that everyone's blaming the farmers," Butcher says, adding that the burden must be shared. "There wouldn't be a water issue if people weren't using up all the water. If people want growth, they're going to have to pay for it. The only thing that's going to solve this is money." The problem with the myriad federal and state agencies and environmental groups working on restoration, he says, is that "they have just enough money to go around in circles."

Butcher's next project is to document the dwindling ancient forests of America's Pacific Northwest. "I'd like to go around to a different virgin forest every year," he says. "I've had people try to persuade me to go to the Amazon or Costa Rica - but how can we tell these people what to do when we don't do it ourselves?"

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.