THE RESURRECTION FERNS ARE everywhere in Myakka River State Park.
They line the branches and cover the trunks of trees and fallen logs like a green carpet, little plants that curl up when dry and unfold green and new when it rains, again, and again, a cycle of renewal.
They are on the massive oak tree Clyde Butcher is looking to capture with his digital lens. The famed photographer moves slowly, using a walker, a camera around his neck. He navigates down a dirt path, past a downed tree branch, some scrubby vegetation, gnarled roots. Finding his spot, he puts up his tripod and considers his composition in the late afternoon light. The walker is there with a fold-down seat in case he needs to rest.
It hasn’t been easy since the stroke he suffered two years ago. It paralyzed his right side. He had to learn to walk again, to shoot with a digital camera instead of the 1945 Deardorff large-format camera he hauled around for decades. He is about 60 pounds lighter than his pre-stroke weight. If he seems more frail as he strives to overcome his physical limitations, he is even more focused on his work. It is his own form of renewal.
More to see, more to do. More to create. He’s already ruined the wheels of one walker when he took it out into the water to photograph. Another time, to his doctor’s chagrin, he climbed a ladder to get the right angle for a particular shot. “Don’t do it again,” he was told.
“I’m a person that has a vision and then physically tries to figure out how to get there.” he said. At 76, he still follows that vision.
Larger than life
Butcher doesn’t do anything small — not his art, not his life. His personality is as expansive as the sweeping black-and-white photos that are his trademark.
He is best known for his immense images of the Everglades, some as large as 5 feet by 9 feet. As an artist, then activist, he became a major catalyst behind the struggle to save the endangered ecosystem. His dramatic vistas with their stark detail earned him the moniker “Ansel Adams of the Everglades,” then, as his body of work continued to expand, “the Ansel Adams of Florida.”
“He showed the other side of the Everglades, that swamps are magical places, not to be feared,” said Mary Barley, chairperson of The Everglades Trust, and a founding board member of The Everglades Foundation. She has known Butcher since the 1990s. When Butcher began to lecture to groups about the Everglades, his words became as compelling as his images, she said. “I think he brought a whole new awareness of the Everglades to everybody, not just environmentalists.” Butcher is convinced that only if you make an emotional connection with the environment will you want to save it. His images encompass the viewer, giving you the sense of being there. Instead of surround sound, it’s like surround vision. “I make my pictures so big you can’t see them. You have to experience them,” he told a knot of people standing around him 20 years ago at a Naples exhibit of his work. “That’s what I’m trying to do — give you the experience without getting wet.”
Butcher has moved from artist to activist to archivist to preservationist, expanding his vision over the years to photograph other sensitive environmental areas, nationally and internationally, in need of preserving. He has documented the national parks, photographed Cuba’s mountains for the United Nations’ “Year of the Mountains,” exhibited landscapes of the Czech republic at the National Gallery of Art in Prague. He has participated in six Public Broadcasting Service documentaries on the Florida environment with filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus, and been the subject of a PBS documentary himself.
He and his wife Niki Butcher built a home and gallery in the Big Cypress National Preserve, part of the Everglades ecosystem, in 1993, dubbing it “Loose Screw Sanctuary,” because people said they must have a screw loose to live there. They held swamp walks on weekends twice a year to introduce people to the Everglades by literally immersing them in it. The walks, or “muck abouts,” became so popular that up to 2,000 people would willingly sign up in one weekend to undergo a swampy baptism.
Now the swamp walks are held once a year at the Big Cypress Gallery. The next event is scheduled for Oct. 26-27 at the gallery’s annual Fall Festival. Proceeds from the swamp walks benefit the Big Cypress National Preserve’s education program.
The Butchers moved permanently to Venice, where they have a second gallery and 2,000-square-foot darkroom, in 2010. They opened a third, smaller gallery as well, off St. Armands Circle in Sarasota.
The long road back
If Butcher’s intent is for viewers of his work to make a personal connection with the land, they have clearly made a personal connection with him. In the aftermath of the stroke, he received bags of cards and letters from all over the world, including Germany, Japan, England and Australia.
Butcher believes he suffered the stroke in his sleep. He awoke the morning of May 6, 2017, by falling out of bed, unable to move his right side. He managed to drag himself into a chair and kept asking Niki to give him more and more aspirin, which has anti-clotting capabilities.
The stroke was due to a blockage in a blood vessel and did not burst. He spent five weeks in the hospital, including rehabilitation. “It was really depressing,” he said. Two weeks after he got home, he still could not write his signature well enough so he could sign books and photographs. The Butchers’ daughter, Jackie Obendorf, who manages their business and galleries, brought him paper so he could practice. “It took a lot of concentration,” he said.
As soon as he mastered his signature, his daughter gave him 1,700 copies of his latest calendar to sign, the result of a promotional sale they had run on his website before the stroke. “I’m a glutton for punishment,” Butcher joked.
“I am very thankful that it did not affect his brain,” Niki said. “He is still as sharp as he ever was. I would hate to see that creativity disappear.”
The creativity didn’t disappear. It reemerged amid the resurrection ferns in Myakka State Park in Sarasota.
Confident and curious
Butcher was born on Sept. 6, 1942, in Kansas City, Mo., the only child of Edna and Clyde Sr. He grew up with great confidence in himself and his abilities, cultivated by parents who loved him unconditionally and fostered his curiosity.
“His parents loved him no matter what,” Niki said. For Clyde there was no such thing as failure, because “he was never taught failure,” she said. “He was taught to keep trying.”
Clyde agreed. “I wasn’t taught negative. All positive.”
His father was a sheet metal worker who worked on the construction of nuclear power plants. The family moved from place to place to follow his father’s work. When he was a teenager, they moved to California.
He mastered archery and when he was 14, he and his mom started a business. He began manufacturing arrows and selling them for 75 cents apiece to sporting goods stores.
In school, he was a math major and studied science and physics. He was thinking of going into computer work. He was fascinated by the space program, which was just starting.
He designed and built a wooden desk in high school that still stands in the Butchers’ home. He took scrap metal from his father’s work-sites and built a 16-foot runabout that he took out into the ocean.
He never let not knowing how to do something stop him from doing it.
Butcher first saw an Ansel Adams photograph of a tree in 1961. “Why take a picture of a tree unless the wood was for sale?” he wondered.
He went to the California Polytechnic State University in San Louis Obispo for architecture. For his sophomore project, he had to build a three-dimensional model and then draw the spaces inside of it.
But Butcher couldn’t draw. So he built a pinhole camera — he had never built one before — and photographed the model instead. It was a means to an end.
The first time he developed film it was all black. He took the camera back to the camera store and said it didn’t work. “I put the film in and I took the picture” he said. Did you turn the lights off when you developed the film? he was asked.
No, he hadn’t. A slight misstep. But he learned as he went and became expert at the technique.
He lived in his car for a time while he went to college. His friends let him eat off their plates in the cafeteria. He showered in their dorms.
In 1961 he began dating Niki Vogel.
They married June 15, 1963. He was 20. She was 18.
At the time, you had to be 21 to legally marry in California. They had to get their parents’ permission.
“We’ve been married 55 years, and moved about 50 times within those 55 years,” Clyde said. “We’re still together.”
At times they lived in a tent trailer, at times it was aboard a 35-foot sailboat in Newport Beach, Calif., with no electricity and no running water, and for nearly 20 years it was in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
“When Clyde asked me to marry him, I said I didn’t want to get married this young because I want to have adventure before I get married.” Niki said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
The adventure begins
Butcher graduated in 1964 and launched his first business with a former classmate, building architectural models.
Two children followed, a daughter and a son. Jackie was born in 1967. Ted was born in 1969.
They married as the Vietnam War era was heating up and the hippie lifestyle began to flourish. They lived in the hills above Palo Alto in a ramshackle hilltop mansion, with seven bedrooms and within view of the Pacific Ocean. They split the rent with several roommates. They lived a bohemian, but not a hippie lifestyle. One of their landlords toted a gun and demonstrated his intent to keep them in line by calling them out on the porch and showing them how he could shoot cans off a fence.
The neighbor on the land abutting their property had a different type of lifestyle. Timothy Leary, the former Harvard psychologist and counterculture guru who advocated the experimental use of psychotropic drugs, had a compound there. The Butchers stayed away.
Looking back, Niki thinks it’s a miracle that she and Clyde met, married and managed to stay together.
“We met each other in the era of Timothy Leary and all the LSD, marijuana and all of that stuff going around, parties, going out and getting drunk. Clyde and I don’t drink, never have. We never smoked. We don’t even drink coffee. So how in that era of hippiness could two people meet who didn’t do any of those things? It’s a miracle,” she said.
“To me the truly amazing thing is we have nothing in common. The only thing we have in common is we both love being outdoors. We both enjoy nature a lot.”
As a young girl growing up, Niki would look for the first star and repeat the traditional nursery rhyme: “Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight …”
“My wish was that I would marry someone kind and gentle. Clyde is,” she said. “That I would have a girl and I would have a boy. That happened. And then that I would have wisdom. I did not know that to have wisdom you have to go through a lot of problems … You can look at your struggles in life and try to step away from them and learn something, or you can let yourself wallow in them and never get out.”
Trying to build a future
Butcher’s first business dissolved after about two years. He went to work for an architectural firm, hating every minute of it.
But in his spare time, he had begun taking nature photographs — in black and white. During a real estate downturn in California in 1969, he was laid off. “No one was hiring architects,” Niki said.
A friend convinced him to take some photographs off his walls and take them to a street market to try and sell them. “He made $600 to $700 that weekend, more than he did the entire week working as an architect,” Niki said. “And here we are today. We never went back.”
At one of the art shows, Butcher met a wealthy private investor who wanted to market his photographs. They formed a business called Eye Encounter. Clyde’s work was sold all over the country in chain stores like JCPenney and Sears. He turned to shooting color photography, because it sold better. It was the ’70s, and people were interested in matching the colors of their shag carpets, furniture and appliances, like avocado refrigerators, Niki said. Clyde began inserting little clocks in the corners of the framed photographs so they became both decorative and functional.
Butcher didn’t take a salary initially, putting everything into the business. It grew fast, and in two years they had two manufacturing plants. But they didn’t have enough ready capital to pay suppliers to meet the customer demand. The mounting financial and physical stress wasn’t sustainable.
In 1978, they sold the business at a loss. The family moved to Florida in 1980.
Finding the real Florida
“I didn’t see anything to photograph in Florida,” Butcher said. It seemed people were only interested in pictures of birds or gators. There were no mountains. So he started photographing beaches.
Niki began taking photos of more trendy subjects that would sell — like teddy bears and sea shells — to bolster the business, and the family had some success. Butcher was able to make bigger photographs and Niki was able to start hand painting her own black-and-white photography.
In 1984, the Butchers were selling at an art festival in Winter Park and visited Tom Gaskin’s Cypress Knee Museum on U.S. Highway 27. Niki was fascinated with roadside attractions that were examples of Florida kitsch. Gaskin made creatures and clocks out of cypress knees — the cone-shaped growths on the roots of cypress trees that stick out above water. Niki had to check it out.
The place was definitely kitschy, but what they found at the back of the property was a revelation — a boardwalk that led into a primeval cypress forest. It was the Butchers’ first experience of the “real” Florida. Clyde loved it. The trees reminded him of the California redwoods. He came back to shoot color photos again and again.
That same week Butcher met Oscar Thompson for the first time when he walked into Thompson’s camera shop on S.R. 80. He peered over Thompson’s shoulder at his color slides. Did Thompson just come back from Africa? “No that’s just down the street,” Thompson said of the subject matter. “Will you take me?” Butcher asked. And they went, then and there, traveling to Mile Marker 28 off Alligator Alley, and into the swamp on a road dug to test for oil wells.
Thompson was pure Florida. His grandfather had been a hunting guide to Edison and Ford. His uncle was the notorious Totch Brown, the colorful Florida cracker who lived off the land and became famous for his gator poaching and marijuana smuggling. Thompson had lived with the Seminole Indians. The Everglades were his backyard and he shared it with Butcher. The two became best friends.
It took a few months before Butcher went into the water. After all, there were gators, snakes, maybe quicksand, he thought. “I really have to credit Oscar for getting me into Florida, making me comfortable with it.”
Thompson died in 2002.
“Oscar was a jewel,” Butcher said.
A staggering loss
Since 1986, the Butchers’ lives have been measured by a single death.
Their son, Ted, was killed at age 17 by a drunk driver.
“Once you experience death, any troubles you have are measured against that,” Niki said. “There are no troubles.”
Niki had premonitions. “In late May of that year, I started feeling extremely weak,” she said. “In June I was so weak I had to go to the doctor. I thought I was dying. I got into bed, and I could not get out of bed. I lay there day after day.”
On Father’s Day, June 15, the Butchers’ 23rd wedding anniversary, Niki got out of bed for a bit. “I remember Ted leaving to go with friends to a movie, about 5 p.m.” He waved goodbye as he went out the door.
“About 9 (p.m.) I felt like a weight was lifted off of me,” Niki said. “I got up.” Her energy came back.
At midnight there was a knock on the door. Clyde opened it. There were two policemen there. “Your son was killed,” they told him.
The accident was at the intersection of what is now Colonial Boulevard and Six-Mile Cypress. Two racing cars, spurred on by an incident of road rage, tore after each other down the street toward the traffic signal, where the car Ted was a passenger in was going to make a left turn. They cars were going 80 mph. Ted’s car was T-boned. The car was pushed clear across the road.
“The very strange thing about all of that — when Ted was born, and put in my arms, I heard a voice that said: This child will die at a young age,” Niki said.
Ted was the first person who died in either one of their immediate families. Two weeks later, Clyde’s father died. They believe it was due to a broken heart over the loss of Ted.
Clyde took his grief into the woods, carrying black-and-white film and his large-format camera.
“He decided life was too short. He decided to do what he wanted to do,” Niki said. “He had found the beauty of Florida. He wanted everyone to see that beauty.
“What I did was try to hold everything together.”
Butcher started shooting only in black and white. Niki thought his ego would be crushed when he tried to sell the photos at the art festivals. “He sold off the bat,” she said. “We were stunned. We thought it was a fluke.” Then it happened again, at the next one and the next one. “To this day we’re still humbled by it,” she said.
A different way of seeing
Butcher now uses a Fuji GFX50s medium format digital camera, with Canon lenses.
There’s something else many people don’t know about him.
“Clyde is color blind,” Niki said.
“No I’m not,” Butcher retorted. “I’m color impaired.”
He found out when he tried to join the Air Force as a young man.
It doesn’t mean that Butcher doesn’t see color. He sees it in a different way. It’s the reason his black-and-white photos are so good, Niki said.
“It’s a gift,” Butcher said.
People who are color blind have difficulty distinguishing certain colors, such as blue and yellow or red and green. The most common form of color blindness is known as “red/green color blindness.” This is what Butcher has.
When he first began photographing, he naturally gravitated to shooting black and white. “In black and white you look for shapes, textures, value scales,” he said. “It’s a whole different way of looking at things than when people shoot color.”
In a video about swamp walks on his website, clydebutcher.com, Butcher says: “Color is a duplication of nature. Black and white is an interpretation.”
His interpretation of the Florida landscape led the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg to seek him out to document another landscape: artist Salvador Dali’s homeland in Spain. He visited Spain in February 2017, two months before his stroke, and spent two weeks documenting the scenes that influenced Dali’s work.
When you look at the photographs in the exhibit “Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali’s Spain” you can see how Dali’s surroundings inspired the artist and are reflected in his paintings. The images are intense, with stark detail, some looking as if you could walk right in and follow the path to the craggy coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Choosing Clyde to photograph Dali’s Spain “was a very natural connection,” said Peter Tush, curator of education for the Dali Museum.
Butcher does photography of dramatic waterfront vistas, and there are no more dramatic waterfront vistas than Dali’s home, Tush said. “It seems really appropriate to use the Ansel Adams of Florida to capture the magic and beauty of Dali’s Mediterranean homeland.”
Butcher works on such a large scale, the photos seemed all-enveloping, Tush said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to see familiar Dali locations through Clyde’s perspective. People were blown away.”
Butcher believes an artist’s work reflects where he lives, and your own backyard is a great place to start. He once sought to heal his heart in the Everglades, his backyard for almost 20 years.
Now he’s healing his spirit in Myakka, his new backyard. Just a few miles from his Venice home, Butcher goes there as often as he can.
He wrote about it in his 2018-2019 newsletter: “I had photographed a lot of the Myakka River ecosystem before my stroke, but after my stroke Myakka River State Park saved my life spirit,” he wrote. “I was able to leave my damaged body and become spiritually lost in the beauty of my surroundings. Myakka has healed me in so many ways, and for that I am forever grateful.”
Asked what he think his legacy will be, Butcher replies: “Who knows? Hopefully an educator about the importance of the environment.”
Niki added, “We hope that his images teach people what to see or how to see, so they will pay more attention to what is being destroyed around them and they’ll change their outlook.”
Others have their own opinions.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who has known Butcher for about 50 years, calls him “a highly accomplished artist and fervent environmentalist.” Graham served as a Florida senator for 18 years, ending in 2005, and for eight years before that, he served as governor of Florida. “He has educated citizens of from all corners of the world to the special qualities of our Florida,” Graham said of Butcher. He sees that as Butcher’s legacy. “Clyde has provided the eyes for unknown thousands of persons who would never have seen Florida, through which they have come to know and appreciate our state.”
Mary Barley, chairperson of The Everglades Trust, said people will remember Butcher and his work forever. “Once you see those images, they live within your mind and you can never forget them,” she said.
“He is a true guardian over the things we love.” ¦
Clyde Butcher Galleries
Big Cypress Gallery
52388 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee, (47 miles east of Naples)
>> Phone: 239-695-2428
>> Hours: open 7 days a week, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Venice Gallery & Studio
237 Warfield Ave. S., Venice
>> Phone: 941-486-0811
>> Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30p p.m. Call for weekend appointments.
St. Armands Gallery
55 South Boulevard of the Presidents, Sarasota, (off St. Armands Circle)
>> Phone: 941-702-8818
>> Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Sunday.
>> Website: www.clydebutcher.com
>> Facebook: clydebutcher.com/facebook
About our writer
Writer Mary Wozniak has known and enjoyed the photography and friendship of Clyde and Niki Butcher for more than 20 years.