Inside the Mind of Two Photographers
During the 1990s, Clyde Butcher emerged as the quintessential photographer of Florida. His haunting, large-scale, black-and-white pictures of the Everglades, aquatic preserves and other natural areas in the state captivated people and opened their eyes to the splendor around them. They continue to do so today.
Capturing those images is both second nature and something of a mystery to Clyde. It’s a mystery he shares intimately with Niki, his wife of 45 years, also a photographer. They are such a united team that they finish each other’s sentences and complete each other’s thoughts. Their cooperative efforts are as seamless as the conversation and laughter that flows between them. In a sense, they are of one mind, and that oneness comes through when they describe the process of getting the perfect shot.
Niki: We never say, “Let’s go photograph that.” We say, “Let’s go photographing.” We get into a state of awareness of our surroundings, get our hearts in touch with the environment.
Clyde: Sometimes it takes several days, or a week or two, of being out in nature. You have to get into its rhythm.
Niki: We have to get in rhythm with the equipment, too. The large-format camera is cumbersome. Clyde and I have to be in rhythm as well, so when he sees a scene, I know what he needs—filters or whatever—so he can get the shot as quickly as possible. So there’s a close connection to the earth and to each other. The equipment becomes who you are.
Clyde: I’ve used the same cameras since 1971.
Niki: That helps. But you can get so wrapped up in daily life. To move beyond that level requires time and concentration. But you can’t focus so hard that you lose that connection. It’s a spiritual kind of thing.
Clyde: One of the things I try to do [in a picture] is to create space that you [the viewer] can get into. To do that, you have to make the pictures large, and to do that you need detail. One of my favorite art forms is the Hudson River School of painters. That’s what they did. You can sit in front of one of their paintings for a long time and enjoy it. I’ve always wanted to do a photograph that measured 10 feet by 16 feet. You can only get that detail by using large-format cameras.
Niki: That’s the reason we choose to wear glasses. Our brains really like sharp images. If you take 35 mm film and blow it up that large, our brains don’t like it. The image is soft. So Clyde’s presenting people with something their brains enjoy.
Clyde: I never use the camera for composition. A lot of times, I’ll use my arms to frame a shot. It’s like you’re embracing the thing you found.
Niki: He doesn’t look through the viewfinder to see the scene.
Clyde: Well, I have to use the viewfinder to focus. But the scene fades out on the ground glass.
Niki: The next step is returning to reality. Because once you get out there and start touching this other dimension, there is such peace and comfort that you really don’t want to come back. But in order to finish the art, you have to.
Clyde: The next part is processing the film. I’ll process one negative and look at the film and say, “I’ve got to adjust the time. The highlights are getting too blocked.” I’m hoping I won’t lose the image. I have no idea until I process the film if I messed up or did something wrong. So there’s always a little feeling of insecurity. That’s always the scary part. The next step is to scan the negatives into the computer. Then I can Photoshop them. That’s the next creative step.
Niki: The reason he does it digitally first is he wants to sort of play with it—see how it feels, what it’s like, how people would react to it. It’s a way of doing R&D before he goes into that really intensive period of going into the darkroom.
Clyde: I would call it chaos. It’s a matter of feeling. I know from my work what contrasts I like, what clarity I like. So I’m working on different planes.
Niki: I think, philosophically, when he’s working on the computer he’s doing the same thing as when he’s in the darkroom. He takes the negative and turns it into a positive. And he remembers what he saw in the scene. Clyde has this phenomenal talent. He can make order out of chaos. He can make a composition where none is apparent.
Clyde: I’m looking for what will lead you through a picture. I can’t really explain it. It’s just a feeling. I have no parameters. A lot of people ask me how to take pictures. I tell them, “If it looks good, photograph it.”
Niki: You and I might see a cloud against a blue sky. But for him, he knows that sky is going to be black. He knows the land has wonderful grays. He’s seeing it in black and white and interpreting it for you. To me, there are two mysteries about Clyde’s work—the mystery of actually seeing the scene and capturing it, and the mystery of interpreting it. Those come from such a deep place that there is no answer to the question, “How did you do that?”
Clyde: An image has to draw me in. I don’t want it to block me out. A lot of photographers put fences in their pictures…
Niki: Figuratively as well as literally.
Clyde: They block you out. [In my images] besides the clouds and water pulling you in, you even have the angle of the grass. Whether it’s a picture of the swamp or a prairie doesn’t matter.
Niki: He will tell you that he does not look at composition. But he’s been doing this for so long that it’s an instinct.
Clyde: With black and white, there is no limitation. I started doing black and white after my son died. That was in 1986. Before then, I had been doing color.
Niki: Ted died and Clyde said, “Life is too short not to do what you want in your heart. What I always wanted to do was black-and-white photography.” Of course, at that time you couldn’t make money with black and white, so we didn’t expect much. But his work was phenomenally received. We were doing street art festivals, and the response was such that we decided to build a gallery. Then we found this property [in Big Cypress]. When we came out to see it, I noticed a telephone pole in front that had some letters and numbers on it—T, 1, 17, 86. T for Ted. He was our only son. He was 17 when he died, and he died in ’86. So I knew this was the place. Clyde would never have had that response [of switching to black and white] if Ted hadn’t died. And now his images have done a tremendous amount in raising awareness of the environment. We found meaning in Ted’s death because of that.
When Clyde was still photographing in color, Niki began to take pictures, too, using a 35 mm camera. Her work has a surreal, enchanting quality, thanks in large part to the hand-coloring she applies. As Clyde’s success grew, she put her own work on hold to concentrate on helping his career. But recently she has returned to it, using a digital camera now—and finding her own lovely voice. As with his work, there is something of a joint effort here as well—and a good deal of humor.
Niki: Clyde had graduated with a degree in architecture, and architecture is something that I’ve always loved. When we came to Florida, we realized there’s not much history of architecture here. I felt what was here was disappearing rapidly. So I began photographing what was left. This was in the ’80s. Then around 1983, I found an old [hand-colored] Florida postcard. I had been a painter, so that idea appealed to me. At the same time, the art deco district in Miami Beach was going to be leveled. I thought, “Look at these phenomenal buildings.” I took black-and-white photos of them and painted them the way I would have painted the buildings if I could. People bought my images, and I think they used them to say, “Paint this building like this.” I can’t say I was a real mover in the preservation effort, but I sold so many of my pictures that I think I did have an impact. Now I can’t fantasize about those buildings because it’s all there. As a painter, I see colors and shadows you can’t get with color film. Each of us sees colors differently. Clyde, for instance, is color-blind.
Clyde: I’m color-challenged.
Niki: The colors I see are not in color film, so I hand-paint. Most of my colors are not real colors. To me, putting color in is a certain expression that satisfies me. Originally, I hand-painted with oils, using toothpicks and cotton balls.
Clyde: Now her pictures are digitally shot in color. She turns them to black and white and then hand-colors.
Niki: So we ended up here in the Loose Screw Swamp Sanctuary—so named because a friend said we had to have a screw loose to live out here. When we built the gallery, we thought it would take forever to build the business. Within our first year, we had a profit. I had been running the business. Clyde can use both sides of his brain easily, but I can’t make that switch as easily. So I stopped [my art]. I just recently started up again.
Colors have psychological meaning to people. To me, turquoise and purple are very spiritual colors. I’m extremely at peace when I have those colors in my life. When I first see a picture, I’m looking to see where I can put those colors. Then I add other colors for contrast. Clyde is such a good photographer that he reaches that spiritual place without color.
Clyde: It’s really weird, too, because photography is such a cold medium.
Niki: I love doing real bright colors, too. I always think that, when we die and go to heaven, we’re going to see colors we’ve never imagined. There’s this whole dimension we as humans are confined to. People may ask me, “Why did you make that tree purple?” For me, it’s another dimension. That becomes part of my process.
There are different philosophies. One is that, if you want to get good at something, concentrate on just that. That’s what Clyde does. I don’t do that. If I see something really neat, I take a picture of it. Life is too short not to have fun. We were in Arizona, outside Sedona in this mining town. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a sign that said, “Support Hillary.” It was a big sign on a fence and underneath it were red, white and blue bras. So I took a picture of it. Where does that fit in my repertoire? Probably nowhere. But it’s fun.
Clyde: Well, it’s also historical.
Completing the art form
Clyde sits down at his computer to illustrate the process he follows to discover the artful picture in each shot. It’s a process he’ll repeat in the darkroom. This is basically practice. But here on the computer and in the darkroom, the Butchers agree, is where the art is truly created.
Clyde: I scan everything as a negative, and then change it to a positive. Obviously, this one is light. I like the sky nice and dark. In the darkroom, I would use my hand to burn in the light. I learned all this just by hitting buttons and looking for a balance.
Niki: We used to hold negative parties with our photographer friends because you always would shoot more than you could print. This way, you can see what every picture would look like.
Clyde: See? I knew there was something here. In the darkroom, I have to do all of this with my hands. If it’s a difficult picture, I’ll take my notes of what I’ve done here into the darkroom. A lot of photographers are probably good, but they don’t know how to do the developing.
Niki: For about the first time in history, just about anyone who picks up a camera can take a picture all the way through to the end. That’s what makes digital so exciting. It’s made it so the average person can do the entire art form. Think of a painter who just sketched something out and then handed it off to someone else to paint. That’s what you do when you send pictures out to be developed. If Clyde didn’t have this technology…
Clyde: It would take me eight hours in the darkroom to get to this point. Normally, it isn’t at least until the third day that I get the first print.
Niki: That’s what every photograph is—it’s a test print. You shouldn’t feel bad if you have to go back and start again from scratch. Every photographer does that.
Photographs by Clyde and Niki Butcher are displayed at the Big Cypress Gallery. For more information, visit www.clydebutcher.com.