A legend turns 80 – Clyde Butcher celebrates surrounded by family, friends and fans

Lance Shearer

Clyde Bucher has put away his signature large-format view camera. With its oversized black and white film negatives and a 2,000-sq. ft. darkroom, he created the massive photographic images which have spread his fame and his work across the country, causing him to be known as the “Ansel Adams of the Everglades,” and giving countless people their closest look at the natural beauty that surrounds Naples and Marco Island.

Butcher turned 80 on Sept. 6, and the preceding weekend, he and his family hosted a two-day celebration of that notable milestone at his Big Cypress Gallery, in the heart of the swamp and the middle of nowhere halfway across the Tamiami Trail to Miami. The passage of years and a stroke in 2017 have made it difficult for him to walk – and impossible to climb into a canoe, said his daughter Jackie Butcher-Obendorf, and rather than hefting the bulky 11 x 14 view camera, he has joined the rest of the photographic world in transitioning to digital cameras.

Butcher’s artistic legacy is secure, and a healthy sampling of the photographic vision that created it was on display at the gallery along US 41, crammed full of iconic images. On Saturday and Sunday, the gallery was equally crammed with fans, friends, art lovers, nature lovers and well-wishers, who came from all over the state to pay their respects to the artist who has come to symbolize the national treasure of the Everglades and the imperative to preserve it.

A continual line of people waited for the chance to spend a few moments with Butcher, have him sign their photographic prints, books and calendars, wish him a happy birthday and tell him how much he had meant to them. Several times, the gallery-goers broke out into a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Visitor Christie Vila promised to come back in 10 years for Clyde’s 90th birthday event. Keith and Morey-Margaret Myers came up from Homestead on the east coast for the day.

“His work is so moving, as well as beautiful,” said Keith. “It’s an honor to meet him.”

Jane Washburn and Ron Prickitt showed Butcher nearly a gallery’s worth of their own Clyde Butcher prints on their iPhone, including several featured in a magazine story on their collection.

“We’re Clyde Butcher collectors. We have at least 10 of his prints, all signed,” said Washburn. The couple drove down from Venice, showing great dedication to their muse, as Clyde and Niki, his wife and fellow art photographer, have another gallery in Venice, and maintain their residence and darkroom there. They also do have a home behind the Big Cypress Gallery.

Collecting Butcher prints comes with a higher price tag these days. The largest prints, the 5 ft. x 9 ft. images for which he is known, start at $30,000, and climb as high as $65,000 for editions which near sellout.

“When people come to this exhibit, I want them to be able to feel like they’re there, and that’s why I like these pictures large,” said Butcher. “You feel one with the photograph.”

Smaller prints such as an 11 x 14 matted into a 16 x 20 start at $695. Calendars are eminently affordable, available for just $25 – and at the gallery over the weekend, you could get yours signed by the artist. The gallery also showcases and sells works by additional photographers and painters, many of them proteges of the Butchers.

Clyde Butcher has always worked in black and white, since he was introduced to the swamps by Tom Gaskins, proprietor of the Cypress Knee Museum in Palmdale, and photographer Oscar Thompson, both now deceased.

“Color is just a xerox of nature – black and white is interpretative,” said the always opinionated Butcher, who also once referred to this photographer’s Nikon SLR as a “wimpy camera.”

Niki Butcher takes a different viewpoint. As well as being Clyde’s indispensable field assistant, Niki is a gifted artist in her own right, and specializes in hand-tinted photos, often also depicting Florida scenery. The two have been married nearly 60 years.

“I’m a dreamer. My pictures have a dreamy quality,” said Niki. “Clyde wants people to see Florida. If people don’t care, we’re going to lose it. I’m very worried about Florida. Our elected officials have to accept that global warming is real.”

With projections of Florida Bay’s open water lapping at the edge of the Tamiami Trail in mere decades, the area around the Big Cypress Gallery is one of the first that will be impacted or destroyed.

Clyde and Niki Butcher will be back at the gallery October 22 and 23 for their Swamp Celebration, a fundraiser offering two-hour swamp walks and helping provide nature experiences for Collier County sixth grade students.

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Located in the heart of the Everglades, surrounded by more than a millon acres of National Park, wetlands, and cypress hammocks of wild Florida, Big Cypress Gallery is located on the Tamiami Trail (US 41), 47 miles east of the U.S. 41–Collier Blvd. intersection (and 35 miles west of Miami) at Mile Marker 54.5. For more info, contact 239-695-2428 or clydebutcher.com.