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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Close Up of a Nature Photographer

Air Date: Week of

Producer Bill George has a portrait of nature photographer Clyde Butcher at work in central Florida’s Big Cypress Natural Preserve.


CURWOOD: Florida's Highway 41, between Naples and Miami, is surrounded by water and trees. Near the halfway point in the middle of Big Cypress National Preserve, Clyde Butcher makes his home and his living. Mr. Butcher is a nature photographer. He works in large format black and white, and often will devote up to five hours to capture a single image.


CURWOOD: Clyde Butcher and his wife, Nikki, invited producer Bill George to one of their shoots in their back yard: an 11-acre swamp which adjoins Big Cypress National Preserve.


BUTCHER: We're in the woods now, 12 feet, and things are already starting to happen. When I first came to Florida I just never -- well, I was chicken. (Laughs) I would never do this, because I was going be eaten alive, you know. (Scrapes and splashes) Our gator usually hangs out right there. He's about ten foot and he's chased me a few times, and I've had to bop him in the nose.

(Buzzing, scraping)

BUTCHER: The first thing I gotta do is get my tripod set up. (Splashes, scrapes, buzzing) Many people say, how do you go back here and survive the snakes and the gators, and, you know, all that stuff? And I say, well, that is nothing compared to lightning. I mean, gators and snakes, you have control. I can take this stick and I can throw a snake out of the way. I can bop the gator on the head and hope for the best. But lightning, when it hits, you have no choice what happens. We were out photographing in a prairie on the Babcock ranch, called Trout Creek. We were rolling about a foot, foot and a half of water, same metal tripod we have here. And this storm starts coming across. I mean, the whole ground is shaking, you know, I mean, the thunder and lightning. And all of a sudden our hair is standing up, and lightning is coming out of our fingers. But the unfortunate part about it is, that's when there's neat photography, all these neat storms. (Laughs) So you ought to be out there when it's storming and get these great shots. But you know, you're playing with a pretty formidable force. And that's more scary than any gator, any water moccasin.

(Rummages in his bag)

BUTCHER: Honey, do you want to get that camera out of the top of the bag?

(Zips the bag shut. Nikki laughs)

NIKKI: It's a little heavy.

BUTCHER: About seventeen pounds, just the body. (Zips) This camera was built in 1948. It's a young one. (Laughs) It's called a Dierdorf . It's made out of mahogany and brass. The School of Architecture in Chicago helped design them for architectural photography, and architectural photography you need a wide angle, tall buildings. So it was basically designed for wide angle, and that's what I use. Okay, I'm going to get the lens.

(Splashing, zippers) You could probably get the --

NIKKI: Table release?

BUTCHER: Yeah, okay. Good. A lot of times I call Nikki my nurse here, because basically this is like being in surgery. You know, you say "scalpel" and I say instead of "scalpel," you know, it's "shutter release," or, "focusing device," or "dark cloth," or "light meter," you know, or, "film holder." So right now I'm screwing the cable release in.

(Bird song; shutter release)

BUTCHER: We're going to open the lens up so we can view through it, so we can focus it. Nice little scene right out in front of us here. Saw grass, vermilions, cypress.

(Raucous bird calls)

BUTCHER: I found, really in the swamp, the best way to do it is to set my camera up, and I'll actually then get in the water and float up to the camera, press the shutter release, and then kind of swim back from the camera and count for -- have you ever counted to ten minutes? One thousand one, one thousand two... (Laughs) Basically I count. And then swim back up to the camera and release the shutter. The only thing that really kind of frustrates me when I do that, is you'll see in these swamp areas, you have these beautiful reflections, and the water is perfectly still. And all of a sudden there are waves. And I said, "Where are these waves coming through?" And all of a sudden I realized, my heartbeat was the same rhythm as the waves. That's how still it can be out here.

(Bird calls; rummaging)

BUTCHER: Nikki, help me hold the dark cloth over so I can focus. Okay, bring her back. Bring her up to forward. Ooh, nice, neat. Okay. Now, hold that up. It's all focused. Now, what I'll do, I'm going to shut the lens down. (Closes shutter) Then, put it down to F45, and this, we're out in the sun right here, so it's going to be about, only going to be about a one-second exposure. Now, I need some film. (Rummages) Put that back in there. My negatives are seven to eight times larger than the 35. And the reason I use that large format, so when I make a five-foot by eight-foot picture, when you see the ferns down in the left-hand corner, you can see the seeds on it. When you see the grass, you can see the veins of the grass. So, each piece of that print has to be as sharp as a small print from a 35-millimeter, because you're looking at it as pieces, and you want your eye, your brain likes sharpness, likes to see the detail. That's why I think it's necessary for large format. I mean, I can make a five-foot, eight-foot from a 35-millimeter. But it's just a bunch of fuzzy stuff. And I want people to feel like they're there.

(Buzzing, bird calls)

BUTCHER: A lot of my images, the ones I think are more successful, are the ones that the center part of the picture is void. There is a space for you to walk into the picture. Or you feel like you're in a canoe going down a stream.

(Releases the shutter)

BUTCHER: The quest for knowledge about the Everglades is really increasing. It seems like every year the people want to know more about it, and I'm hoping that some of it has to do with the photographs that I do, and helps people understand it.

(Bird songs)

CURWOOD: Our sound portrait of photographer Clyde Butcher was produced by Bill George. You can see a portfolio of Clyde Butcher's photographs on our Web page at www.loe.org. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.



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