The 'Ansel Adams of the Everglades' Clyde Butcher Hopes His Images of South Florida Will Convince People That It's Worth Saving

By Maud Dillingham, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

The 'Ansel Adams of the Everglades' Clyde Butcher Hopes His Images of South Florida Will Convince People That It's Worth Saving


Maud Dillingham, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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