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Meet Clyde Butcher, The Steward of Big Cypress Swamp

clyde butcher

Big Cypress Swamp may play second fiddle to the better-known Everglades, but as photographer Clyde Butcher illustrates, it has a rare beauty all its own.


The plight of the fragile Everglades ecosystem has made headlines, but Big Cypress, the 729,000-acre watershed to its northwest, has faced the same environmental struggles in comparatively quiet ignominy. Photographer Clyde Butcher has spent his career trying to change that through his jaw-dropping black-and-white images of the region.

The million-acre watershed that encompasses Big Cypress National Preserve and the southern-bordering prairies of Everglades National Park, roughly 30 miles east of LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort in Naples, has long had a bad rap as a place where only the Creature from the Black Lagoon could survive. The negative stereotype is largely why this region has taken blow after environmental blow over the last century: No one has been there to notice its swamps being polluted, its forests being demolished, its natural water flows being ditched, diked, and drained. For Clyde Butcher, part of his life’s work has been to capture this fragile, haunting landscape – before it’s gone forever.

clyde butcher

Photo courtesy of Clyde Butcher

On What About the Swamp He Most Loves to Capture on Film

The primeval beauty. It’s one of the most unique places in the world. It’s where the tropics meet the temperate zone, and as result, all these different kinds of growth exist that couldn’t anywhere else.

On Why Black-and-White Photography Is Sacred to Him

Our lives are constantly bombarded with color, but black-and-white has a clean simplicity to it. I often ask, “What do you think is more important to you: air or water?” I answer, “Of course, both.” But in a color photograph, if you love turquoise, all you see is the water, or if you love green, all you see is the green. But, in a black-and-white photograph, the scene becomes one because it is simply a series of values. Nothing is less important than everything else. And that is the way nature is. It is one. Without the whole, it cannot exist.

On His Recent Switch from a Large-Format Camera to Digital

I have photographed with large-format cameras for 50 years. I wanted to make very large photographs (five by seven feet), and I wanted them to be sharp. The only way to do that was to use large-format film because it can capture the details of nature and that detail is retained in a large image. All of that was back in the “dark ages,” now it is possible to produce a large, sharp image using digital.

When I turned 73, I decided, after a couple of years of having a hard time carrying my large-format camera gear (50 to 60 pounds) around on my back, to give it up. Since then, I’ve enjoyed using my Sony A7R2 and have captured several wonderful photographs – just proving that the art is in the person, not the camera – unless, of course, you need to print very large images, then you must have the technical ability to do so. Fortunately, the Sony allows me to do that.

On His Preferred Subject Matter

I don’t carry around a camera to shoot people, houses, etcetera. I only photograph nature. Well, occasionally I’ll photograph a historic building or something, but nature is where I like to be, and so I want to capture it for those who don’t have the ability to go out into it and for those who love it. I go on photography trips, but beyond that, there is little planning. I just follow the light.

On Why He Loves Living Near the Swamp

I love nature and with the population growth happening in Florida, I fear for the natural health of our state. Having our own piece of heaven where we can escape the hectic masses of humanity is a gift from heaven. It is there that I can find peace and quiet and center myself.

On the Kind of Environmental Protections Needed to Save the Big Cypress Swamp

Currently, north of Big Cypress, there are several city developments being planned. I would like it to all be open space, but that is not realistic so I would like to see the property that is going to be sold that is on the edge of the Panther Refuge and Big Cypress be very large plots of land, at least 20 acres per house, then a larger section that is 10 acres, then a larger section that is 5 acres, then a larger section that is 2 acres…then ordinary development. Hopefully, that would help retain somewhat of a natural environment for Big Cypress and the animals.

clyde butcher

Photo courtesy of Clyde Butcher

On the Swamp’s Ever-Evolving Scenes

There are some places in the Big Cypress that I find and then lose. I don’t carry a GPS tool; I just let the world present itself to me. Years ago, when Oscar Thompson [a fellow photographer] and I were swamping around behind my gallery, we came across this scene (pictured above). I didn’t have a camera with me, so no photo was taken. Later, I tried to find it again and couldn’t. For years, I looked for it and wasn’t able to find it. I could not erase the image from my mind, so I continued to try and find it. Finally, I found it, but the light wasn’t right. Then I lost it again. Finally, on a swamp excursion with some friends, we came across the place I had wanted to photograph for so long and everything was perfect! It only took me nine years to capture this image.

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