Meeting Clyde Butcher

By Joey Dickinson

March 6th, 2015

The first time I ever set foot in a Clyde Butcher gallery was on, or at least very close, to my 18th birthday. It was in the middle of summer, in-between my last year of high school and my first semester as a college student. I had just graduated from Fort Myers High School in the International Baccalaureate program and would soon be on my way to studying media production at Florida State University. If you’re a kid growing up in southwest Florida, or really anywhere in Florida for that matter, it’s difficult to not come across a Clyde Butcher photograph every couple of blinks. I’d examined Clyde’s work in school, my entire family (especially my older sister, Lauren) was familiar and infatuated with his pictures, and I had seen his work hanging in county offices, visitor’s centers, and even tourist pamphlets – but I’d never had the pleasure of strolling through the landscape-laden corridors of either of his galleries. My girlfriend at the time had decided that this deprivation had gone on long enough, and gifted me a birthday trip to Venice, solely to see the gallery. And what a gift it was. I got lost in every frame. I could stare at any one of the images for hours – the depth of each image exposed what I was born into, what I’d spent years of my childhood seeking; the atmosphere of my Floridian psyche. From innumerable family camping trips to Fisheating Creek, I felt like I was canoeing right into his images of densely wooded waterways, careful to watch for alligators. From years of hiking through endless hammocks with Boy Scouts, I could feel the unforgiving heat beating down on me, and feel the saw grass pulling on my pant-legs in his images of saw grass prairies and open cloudscapes. After getting my driver’s license, I had an affinity to go the extra mile to seek out the most isolated beaches around me, and I could hear nothing but the constant backbeat of waves, and I could even smell the saltwater in his images of the coast. I’d been to all of these places – I really recognized them! Perhaps I hadn’t been to the exact coordinates at which the images were taken, but every single scene seemed akin to me, as if each one struck a different chord on the strings of my memories.

Clouds Over Gulf.
Clouds Over Gulf. Image by Joey Dickinson.

While the majority of my high school classes hardly sparked more interest than necessary, I did enjoy analyzing literature for underlying poetic connotations, being able to make videos –more often than not, ridiculous – for the school news, and of course, being able to make friends with those who had similar interests. However, there was, in fact, one single course that I was, and still am, incredibly grateful for – a course that would, in probably more ways than I can even understand, change the course of my life from then on – photography. I had messed around with video cameras since middle school, mostly to make people laugh, and had fooled around with still photography to capture moments, not necessarily images, but I had never had it explained like this before. Photography as an art form – even more importantly – photography as an art form driven by a purpose. My instructor, Mrs. Pam Schwantes, was remarkable not only in her ability to explain visual artistic concepts in a highly-comprehensible manner, but also in the way in which she could open up the eyes of her students to their own artistic capabilities. I began to understand that the same thing I was doing in English class could be applied visually. Nothing has to be accidental, and anything can be emotionally or poetically significant.

Along with an outstanding teacher, this photography class was also significantly different than most others in that we had access to a darkroom, and all of the supplies necessary to use it. Thus began my fascination with the aesthetic of film photography versus digital. It was so much more physical, so much more personal – the analogue route. It was also more complicated, in a sense, and there was many a student, myself being one of them, who would tragically lose an entire roll of film, containing what they were sure were the greatest negatives ever exposed. I came to love the intimate delicacy of this art form, and all of the tiny emotions that developed with it, and for reasons beyond my comprehension or ability to explain, black and white images struck me on an entirely different level than color. The best explanation of this sensation that I’ve found so far is from one of my favorite artists, Cole Thompson: “For me, color records the image, but black and white captures the feelings that lie beneath the surface.”

Old Car Interior. Image by Cole Thompson.
Old Car Interior. Image by Cole Thompson.

And then there’s Clyde. Not only was he using film, but large format film, which took the unique sense of clarity and depth of film that I had taken to and enlarged it immensely, yielding images so massive, you really feel like you’re inside of them. The subject matter was what really drew me in – capturing the many unique, fragile, and not to mention beautiful, faces of Florida – all on a medium that seemed to match the delicacy of the subject itself – black and white. Photographing Florida in black and white? This guy had to be nuts to have even tried it, but it worked more than perfectly. He wasn’t trying to simply document a river, or a saw grass prairie, or the beach, but rather, he was attempting to capture, as Thompson said, “…the feelings that lie beneath the surface.” And he does a magnificent job. Earlier, I explained how each of these images seemed so familiar to me, and fired off different memories deep down inside. However, the thing about Clyde’s images is that a viewer needs not have actually been to these places at all for them to trigger emotions. Large portions of Floridians are too busy, too tired, too uninspired, or simply uninterested to go exploring and find these treasures, clearly visible in their own back yard. On the same note, tourists from out of state most usually stick to the streets and sidewalks of Florida, seeing these places from car windows or visitor’s centers. I remember seeing images of Clyde chest deep in the water of a swamp, hands raised, adjusting his camera to capture an image. Wading in Florida’s notoriously alligator-filled swamp-water is not first on a typical local’s to-do list, let alone any tourist. It seemed that Clyde’s standpoint is, ‘if they won’t go out and see for themselves, I’ll bring it to them.’ But it doesn’t stop there. The images were intended not only for exposing the bare wilderness of Florida, but to inspire people to actually go see it for themselves, and to protect what still remains natural out there. Conservation photography to its highest extent.

Mrs. Schwantes allowed students to photograph whatever inspired them, encouraging us to delve into the field and seek out our favorite themes, motifs, an subjects. I couldn’t begin to list the outstanding artists I studied in my photography class, heck, I filled out two books of research on them; From James Nachtwey, photographing the harsh cruelties of war and imprisonment, to Jerry Uelsmann, exploring the spirit of consciousness in surrealism, everyone had a different mission. From this research, we were to create our own mission statement as students of photography. What I ended up writing down was more geared to my actual photos, but if you were to ask what I wanted to do with photography, I’d say, “I want to make people think.” Out of all of the artists I’d studied, Clyde did this most extensively, in a way I could most instinctively relate to.

Leaving Clyde’s Venice gallery, I glanced back at the door to his famous darkroom, undoubtedly containing over-sized enlargers and chemical baths. “I really, really hope I get to go in there one day,” I thought to myself. I left the gallery with an expanded focus. While my subject of focus in my class in high school was along the lines of “what humans have left behind,” I began to bring my camera with me on trips out on the water, or anywhere in nature, and attempted to photograph what I saw in black and white, to capture all of those hidden emotions of each place. Unfortunately, having graduated, I no longer had access to a darkroom, but nevertheless, I would continue utilizing what I had.

Cape San Blas.
Cape San Blas. Image by Joey Dickinson.
Cayo Costa
Cayo Costa. Image by Joey Dickinson.

Fast-forward two years. I’ve just finished my second year at Florida State, my first in the Media Production program, and I’ve somehow managed to land an internship with Elam Stoltzfus – independent documentary producer/director. “I’ve found that production is what I’m best at, and I love Florida, and you combine those two better than anyone else,” I told Elam when we first met. Meeting him was seemingly miraculous – how often does a college student meet someone who does exactly what they’d like to do – let alone get to work with them? I couldn’t help but admire Elam for his expansive repertoire of self-produced work, all about the unique and dynamic environment of Florida. He had a way of combining art and environmentalism in a highly educational way – through film, my medium of choice.    As it turns out, Elam has been close friends with Clyde Butcher for over 25 years, and it was during this summer internship that I would get to meet him – although it would be about 3,000 miles away from where I’d envisioned meeting him. Elam had been documenting Clyde’s work off-and-on for those 25 years, and planned on creating a feature-length film on his life in the near future. For this film, however, Elam wanted to get footage of Clyde in the Redwood Forest, the place where he first began taking photographs of the environment. At the same time, Clyde and his wife, Niki, would be heading to the Redwoods that summer on their 50th wedding anniversary. The timing could not be more perfect, and Elam decided to take me along for assistance, and perhaps someone to talk to on the extensive journey.

Elam and I flew from Panama City to Atlanta, and from there to San Francisco. Throughout the entire duration of the flight, I was mesmerized, and I felt so small, watching the entire country pass slowly beneath me. We landed in San Francisco, passed over the Golden Gate Bridge, and then drove about five hours north to Humboldt County – in the heart of the Redwood Forest. For most of the drive, I was completely silent, in awe of the towering monoliths that Mother Nature had erected around me. As you can imagine, all of this in one day was pretty overwhelming, but once we got to Humboldt, I was more than ecstatic at the thought of meeting Clyde and Niki. We met at a small diner, and I was introduced. Over a home-cooked meal, I kept mostly quiet, letting Elam and his old friends talk. “Can you believe it? This is finally happening!” Elam exclaimed. It was humbling, to say the least, to hear these folks talk. Clyde and Niki had been on the road for a few months by then, and were delighted to be with someone they knew, and let their thoughts spill out to Elam. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world, being able to hear Clyde talk to Elam about so many things I would never have heard him say if I simply met him at an open house. I was surprised at how humorous Clyde was, having taken his work so seriously. Thinking about it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the time, but indeed I was, to see how his passion seeps into each and every conversation he’d hold. When it came to environmental politics, present and past, he was excitingly knowledgeable, and could talk forever; I mean it – forever, about camera technology. I especially enjoyed listening to a conversation between he and Peter Portugal, a friend he’d made in college and probably hadn’t seen in over 35 years. Clyde and Peter were both architecture students who couldn’t draw, so they built their own cameras, and photographed architectural models, rather than drawing them. They were way ahead of their time.

A panorama of Joey, Elam, and Clyde in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.
A panorama of Joey, Elam, and Clyde in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.
Clyde, Joey, and Elam in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.
Clyde, Joey, and Elam in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.
Clyde, a park ranger, Elam, and Joey in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.
Clyde, a park ranger, Elam, and Joey in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.

While talking to Clyde was interesting, I particularly enjoyed getting to know his wife. I could talk to Niki about anything that had to do with art for hours on end – she really gets it. She has a deep understanding of artistic quality, as well as a deep understanding of people. As I said, I felt lucky, but I knew it was much more than luck – this experience was an enormous blessing.

I try to draw inspiration from anything and everything, from what I see out the window, to what I hear on the radio, to ancient paintings – and that certainly is easier said than done. However, the one muse that inspires me the most is people. People always surprise me, and always will. I know that this brush with greatness, this opportunity to work with and get to know the Butchers, happened to me for a reason, and I intend to use the experience to create the best work possible upon the production of this documentary – to do this family, and their incredible story, justice. We are currently in the pre-production stages of creating this biographic film, and I am studying as much as I can to gain a clear understanding of Clyde’s life story, his artistic process, and his art itself.

To be a part of the creation of this film is beyond anything I’d ever dreamed of doing. It’s like a dream come true –five years in the making for me, but for Elam and Clyde, it’s a dream come true more than 25 years in the making. I suppose I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but I’ll be the first to appreciate it, and plan on pouring my heart into this project, as Clyde and Elam have poured theirs into their work for so long. As Elam says, Clyde has been giving and giving for decades, and the time has come to finally give something to him. As an artist, passionate advocate, and educator, Clyde has given the State of Florida something priceless, and I hope you will join us in telling this truly remarkable story.

Birds Taking Flight.
Birds Taking Flight. Image by Joey Dickinson.

A few months ago, Elam sent me to Clyde’s Venice gallery to create an Amendment 1 PSA. Clyde and I being the only people in the gallery, I asked him to show me his darkroom, and he happily gave me a personal tour. Talk about a dream come true….

Postscript: Currently, Joey is editing a series of short videos for a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to do a full-length Public Television documentary on Clyde Butcher. If the fundraising efforts are successful, Joey will edit the entire film. 

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