Like many transplants, renowned photographer Clyde Butcher—today nearly synonymous with Florida’s wilderness — had to immerse himself in our unique habitats to learn to love them. His career is dedicated to introducing others to the back country — literally, through swamp tours, and figuratively with his oversized photographs that immerse viewers in places they may never otherwise see.
Eric Foht, Naples Botanical Garden’s Director of Natural Resources, grew up in Naples, intrinsically loving the land and now teaching others to do the same. He oversees 90 acres of uncultivated land within the Garden, managing the types of habitats that Butcher captures in his photographs. He is also well-versed in art, giving him a special appreciation for Butcher’s photography.
In a wide-ranging conversation, the two discuss each other’s work and share their passion for educating others about Florida’s wilderness in the hopes that they, too, will become champions of the land.
America’s Everglades: Through the Lens of Clyde Butcher runs from April 15 to June 15 in Kapnick Hall. For ticketing information, click here.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
EF: I really have loved your work for a long time. I grew up in Naples; I’ve taken that drive down US 41 many times and stopped at the (Ochopee) gallery. This speaks to me — that environment, and it’s neat to have access to your work. You’ve captured what I love and what I feel. It’s cool to be able to tell you that in person.
CB: A lot of photographers come to Florida to photograph, and they say, “How do you do this? It’s chaos.” I try to explain … In chaos, nature is in order.
EF: Oh, definitely.
CB: If it’s not in chaos, usually nature is screwed up.
EF: People want to understand what they look at, so they simplify, simplify, simplify. And then it’s not nature, it’s a garden, which is interesting in another way.
I remember this one coworker of mine. He went to Johns Hopkins (University), and he studied neuroscience, so it’s interesting that he decided to get into the environmental field. He told me that when he first got here, he couldn’t see the forest. He didn’t know what the plants were; he thought it looked jumbled. He might have even said it looked like a mess.
CB: It is!
EF: He couldn’t see it, and he worked with me for two years, and at the end of the two years, we were having an exit interview, and he said, “You know, thanks for sharing all you did and teaching me about the plants. I really find it beautiful now.”
Now that he understood what it was, it changed what he was actually seeing, and I think your work definitely does that for people.
CB: We have tourists who come into the gallery, and they look at the work, and then they go out to Big Cypress or the Fakahatchee, and they say, “After seeing your pictures, I can more understand what we’re doing here,” because I have a way of simplifying the chaos.
Seeing the perfect shot
EF: I’ve often wondered, when you’re out there looking to simplify what some might call “chaos,” how do you know when to stop and set the camera down?
CB: It’s an emotional thing. You see something that says, “I’d like to be here. I like this.” … I have the mirrorless cameras, where you see the image in the viewfinder, so if you like it, you just take the picture. It’s really simple. The problem is just you have to see it. (laughs)
EF: That’s simple for you. But I think you’re right — a lot of people who come to the gallery don’t see that initially, and if they don’t see that, they don’t connect to the place like you and I do.
CB: That’s why I make my pictures big. Why do you think I make them big?
EF: Well, they’re definitely a statement. It feels more like you’re there.
CB: Do you know why you feel that? Because you can’t see it (all at once) … You have to explore the picture.
EF: Each time you come back to the picture, you can probably notice something different, which I love.
The absence of color — and the presence of everything
EF: The black and white is so stunning in a way. I think it makes you look at it in a different way. If it was color, you might think, “Oh, I’ve seen that.”
CB: Yes, if you like green, you look at the green. If you like blue, you look at the blue. You’re looking at the colors, you’re not looking at the textures, you’re not looking at the space. You’re not seeing the structure of it. It’s very monolithic …
CB: What’s the most important part of nature?
EF: (laughs). I don’t know. What would you say?
CB: Everything has the same importance.
EF: I see what you’re saying. I love that!
CB: You either have the whole thing, or it don’t work! (laughs)
EF: It’s like, when could you stop removing a piece? It’s all one thing. A unit. Nothing is more important.
The life-changing impact of a single hike
CB: When you’re walking through the swamp, Fakahatchee or Big Cypress, you become immersed in it. We have been doing swamp walks ever since we built the gallery, and people coming through the swamp walks say, “Wow, I can feel it and see it now.”
EF: That must be a good feeling, to give someone that.
CB: We’ve taken, I don’t know how many people, thousands. We took President Carter out there. He was in seventh heaven.
EF: He grew up in the swamps as a young boy.
CB: Yeah. It was a long time since he’d been in the swamps. But you should have seen the grin on his face the whole time. And his wife, too. The fun people were the Secret Service.
EF: Oh, they must have been squirrely out there!
CB: They were scared to death!
EF: Think about what that says — in their line of work, they’re protecting people in all sorts of awkward and intense places, and (then) they’re scared walking in knee-deep water in the swamp.
CB: We were going into the swamp, and (the agent protecting First Lady Rosalynn Carter) says, “I can’t believe they’re making us do this.” About halfway through, she says, “You know, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.” From complete terror to saying, “Wow, this is pretty neat.”
EF: In one hike.
CB: In one hike.
EF: That’s so interesting. That really resonates with me in my job at the Garden. Sometimes people come from the Garden (to the Preserve), and they’re looking at the map and …. I feel like they want to turn back. If I happen to catch them in that moment, I ask them, “Can I help you find your way?” and they say, “I think we’re lost,” and I tell them, “No, you’re right where you want to be. You just don’t know it.”
CB: You’re not lost; you’re just misplaced.
Learning to appreciate Florida
EF: I wanted to ask you: You didn’t see a lot to photograph (in Florida) at first.
CB: I didn’t see anything.
EF: I was wondering if you could explain why that was and how that changed.
CB: Out West, you’re used to seeing big mountains, big rocks, big stuff. It’s actually very monolithic. I take pictures now of sand spits. I would never think of taking pictures of sand spits out West.
EF: I just thought of this looking at that picture behind you there with the expanse and the clouds … out West, it (the landscape) scales vertically. Here in Florida, it’s horizontal … I think for a lot of people, that might not be an intuitively beautiful thing, but to me it is.
CB: Out West, you can see the landscape driving in the car. You can’t do that here.
Butcher looks forward to Garden return
CB: I was there for the humble beginnings of the Garden. It was pretty rugged!
EF: Well, it’ll be interesting to have you back and see what you feel now after restoration.
CB: It’ll be interesting to see — it’s really difficult, probably, to restore that area because there were so many invasive species.
EF: The melaleuca, primarily. It was just heartbreaking to see how much of it there was.
CB: You know they planted it on purpose.
EF: I know. I actually did a presentation on the history of melaleuca in Naples and Southwest Florida, and it was really fascinating to find out how early back that tree was brought in and for many different reasons. [Melaleuca is an Australian tree imported as a potential commercial timber tree and to dry up swampland — a decision that would wreak havoc on Florida’s ecosystems.]
CB: Do you know what happened? Australia started importing our pine trees. Now it’s screwed up Australia, like theirs screwed up us! It doesn’t belong there.
EF: I wish we could learn that lesson.
EF: I was looking at the photos that we chose (for the exhibition) … there are a lot that really connected with me. We have different habitats, as you know, at the botanical garden. One of them is your picture of a black mangrove. You have this really large, solo black mangrove. And we actually have one of those in our natural areas.
CB: One of the important things about the black mangrove is they’re the first to go with global warming. In fact, a lot of them in the national park are disappearing because the water is getting too high.
EF: That’s a good transition into the topic of: How can we act and do something? How can your art help?
CB: Well, the art is there to say to people, “This is a beautiful place, we’re so lucky to have this. Why do we want to get rid of it?”
EF: That’s a question I ask myself a lot.
CB: But they don’t ask that question because they’re not intimately involved in it. Hopefully, the photographs help them get some sort of feeling for it.
EF: I think they do … You never know how your art will impact someone.
CB: But you got to get them to do something.
EF: I think that’s where our mission can really help. We’re gonna bring people in, and it’s not just hey, look at this and move on. You said —– if I’m quoting and remembering right — you want your work to engage people and give them a reaction and maybe invite them to see (the wilderness) on their own. Because if you don’t have that emotional connection, asking them to do these greater things, like act to help save the Earth, is difficult.
Saving the planet is up to the young … and the old
EF: Are you hopeful your work will inspire young people to connect with the environment and make these different ways of thinking and being?
CB: A lot of kids are now environmental people. But don’t forget — for some reason everybody gets the attitude that we’re gonna teach the kids about all this stuff, which is OK. But unless we save it for them, they’re not going to have anything to work with.