The ArtsRivers of grass
Big Cypress Swamp
and the Western
Through July 25 at
Orlando Museum of Art
2416 N. Mills Ave.
If Clyde Butcher’s Florida landscapes in his one-man Orlando Museum of Art exhibit are large in scale, and often immense in size, it’s only because his subject has demanded it over the past quarter century. The Everglades, after all, belong at the top of the nation’s grandest, most impressive list of environmental treasures as well as an area in urgent need of conservation and protection.
Still, in Clyde Butcher: Big Cypress Swamp and the Western Everglades, an absorbing and sweeping survey of Butcher’s black-and-white studies, what is most immediately apparent is the mysterious, primal vistas he depicts, as vividly as any by Ansel Adams or Edward Weston.
In his 1986 “Moonrise,” the Big Cypress Swamp-based photographer both pays homage to Adams’ 1940s “Moonrise” studies and creates a timeless image of the Everglades at a single spectacular moment. Its tiny lunar sphere floats high in an inky sky. Below, in the center, a magnificent cloud seems suspended, as if by magic: white, fluffy billows at its top are like whipped cream over the dark ranges below. The land occupies only the lower quarter of the composition and features the twisted, bleached trunks of dead trees, rooted in a densely grassy area.
Simple enough to describe, but nothing prepares the viewer for the actual experience of confronting “Moonrise,” which Butcher took with an 8-by-10 inch view camera while waiting at the top of his 10-foot wooden ladder for just the right moment. The wait was well worth his trouble: The image, almost 4-by-5 feet, is large enough for the viewer to feel as if he or she is falling into the landscape; even as the exquisite detail and richly toned and textured blacks and whites hold the viewer back, they provide just the right mix of elegant design, of masterful composition.
The wall text on another classic 1986 landscape by Butcher, the even larger “Ochopee” provides very personal insight into his Everglade series’ inspiration. Butcher, a Kansas City, Mo., native who was trained as an architect, began making typical Florida scenes in color – beaches, foliage – after arriving in the state in the early ’80s. With his wife and partner, Niki, who was then showing her hand-colored black-and-white prints, he made the festival circuit in those early days.
“I was photographing Florida in color and wanted to go back to black and white, but was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to make a living at it,” he noted on his Facebook page. “In 1986 our son, Ted, was killed when a drunk driver hit the car he was in. In the shock of it, I went out into the Everglades and began photographing with black and white film,” Butcher wrote.
“I began doing what my heart desired and didn’t care if I ever sold an image. When I exhibited the work, I was shocked that I sold it! And today I am humbled that I am able to make a living making artwork from my heart.”
It wasn’t simply going back to his photographic roots; Butcher’s revived interest in black and white worked well with his subject and with his desire to remove what he describes as “the distraction of color.” But above all, it was his new ability to be alone with nature, to think and respond to surroundings that hover between the natural and the sublime. He found all that – first in the ’glades and, more recently, in other wild but threatened parts of Florida and beyond, as far as the Smoky Mountains, Washington’s Olympic National Park, Utah’s Escalante Canyon, and even Cuba and the forests of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic.
But it’s “Ochopee” and his other Florida works, among them his “Corkscrew Sunflowers (Helianthus Agrestis)” and “Cigar Orchid Pond,” both from 2009, that are Butcher’s most impassioned and intimate. The sky, dark and ominous, dominates “Ochopee,” an image taken by the side of the road one day, when the landscape called out to him in a way it could not if he were speeding past. Butcher is amazed when people ask where to shoot; he has said, “People have to open their eyes – beauty is everywhere.”
So dark that it seems as if Earth’s atmosphere has evaporated, revealing deep space, the sky in “Ochopee” is partly obscured by banks of towering white clouds on the right side of the enormous image, while thunderheads are rolling in from the left. Between them, a stand of palm trees clusters on a distant island, midway between storm and sun. The foreground, so crisply observed and detailed that every blade of grass gleams in the vanishing sunlight, gives way to the water that underlies the whole landscape. It’s a literal “river of grass,” in the words of the writer who wrote about the Everglades a half-century before Butcher arrived, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Like her writings, “Ochopee” shows clearly the fragile ecosystem: 6 inches deep and 50 miles wide, the “river” flows so slowly that it appears almost static.
Butcher froze time in “Ochopee,” stopping not only the movement of a river flowing so leisurely that its waters reflect the grasses and turbulent skies like a mirror but also the weather, a very tangible element in his work. The image is still; its implications are dynamic, just as they are in his latest prints. The mood is poetic in “Cigar Orchid Pond #1,” light filtered as it dapples curving tree trunks festooned with orchids in their natural pristine setting. The sheer volume of the flowers, small and lacy, creates a sense of joy that is enhanced by Butcher’s muted, luminous treatment. The picture-window-sized print, immeasurably more effective than smaller works like Butcher’s studies of a Ghost Orchid and birds, is a tender interplay of velvety textures, silvery tones and soft shadows.
None of that is by accident, though Butcher is glad to find those grace notes where they are, in abundance. He wrote:
To me, photography is magic. It never ceases to amaze me that the image in front of me can be captured on film. There is always the mystery and excitement of wondering if I caught the moment … if what I saw is what I captured on film. The mystery continues as I process the image in the darkroom. Watching the image come up in the developer is magic. Sharing the images with others is another thrill for me. To share the beauty of the environment, helping folks to understand how magnificent the world is, gives me deep satisfaction.
Earth Day program
Discussion With Landscape
Photographer Clyde Butcher and Filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus
1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 25,
at Orlando Museum of Art
price of admission
As if the images in his wide-ranging solo exhibit weren’t enough to make the reasons for Earth Day crystal clear, Clyde Butcher himself will be on hand to talk about conservation issues. Joining the photographer will be filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus, whose documentary Big Cypress Swamp – The Western Everglades adds fresh dimensions to Butcher’s large-format black-and-white studies of the infamous swamp and its environs. Among topics the two artists plan to address are how the project evolved and how they collaborated on it, as well as issues related to photography and film, and their individual and joint efforts to bring attention to such urgent environmental issues as the condition of the Everglades, Florida’s famous “sea of grass.” A question-and-answer session will follow the discussion, and Butcher will sign copies of his books at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. at the museum.