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Interview with Clyde Butcher

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
10 min read

The following is an excerpt from an unpublished book I wrote in 2001 about master landscape photographers and their businesses. I dug it up because Clyde Butcher is my favorite photographer and a lot of what he had to say is still very relevant. Check out some of his work and read away.

Photographers in search of a modern-day Ansel Adams need look no further than Clyde Butcher. With a reputation as the world’s greatest living zone-system landscape artist, his prints reside in museums, private galleries, celebrity homes, and even a castle.

Most days he can be found waist deep in the swamps of Southern Florida searching for his next subject. Whether it is the graceful leaflets of a fern dipping into the water or a vast seascape interrupted by the form of cypress tree, he methodically stakes out a vantage point and waits. He waits, sometimes for hours, until the light is absolutely perfect. Then he releases the shutter on his antique 8”x10” or 11”x14” camera and paddles his canoe to his next subject.

The resulting massive prints are painstakingly crafted and hung in his own private gallery or sold through his web site and books. Eager would-be artists shell out $1000 each to travel to Florida and take part in Butcher’s photography workshops. They’re treated to the insights behind their favorite works and Clyde’s philosophy on landscape photography, “Color is duplication, black and white is interpretation.”

When did you first realize that photography would become your life’s work?

It was a long time in coming. I actually fell into photography by accident and fell into landscape photography by accident again. It was a long time before I took photography as a serious profession.

During my youth I was a “builder.” I built all kinds of things, including a 16-foot wooden powerboat when I was a junior in high school. I loved designing and building things, so it was natural that I choose architecture as my major in college. The one problem I had with my architectural classes was that I couldn’t draw my designs. Well, I could draw them, but not very well. I knew that if I was going to convince clients that my designs were good enough to build, I would have to come up with a better presentation than drawing. That is when I took up photography.

I couldn’t afford a camera, so I built a pin-hole camera, and bought a roll of film. I read the directions on the film, and then began experimenting with exposures. I eventually figured it out and made my first class presentation. It was an overwhelming success. I received an A+ on my design and my presentation.

I would build my architectural model designs to the scale of the newly planted tiny trees in the forest up on the mountain. Then I’d take the model up to the forest and put it into the trees and I’d photograph the model. The result was a building that looked like it had already been built. The response from my professor was so good that I ended up doing my senior thesis on the way I photographed architectural models.

When I graduated, I went into the business of photographing architectural models. I realized that I really enjoyed photography, but I had no idea it would become my life, and never even a hint that landscape photography would be the way that I would make a living!

How did I become a landscape photographer? The architectural industry in California went into a slump and I lost my job. I had been photographing landscapes of California in black and white as a hobby. I had them hanging in my apartment. I had a family to support and no job, so when a friend suggested that I take the photos down to the local street art festival and sell them, I decided to try. Well, I made more money that weekend than I did in an entire week of working for an architect and my life was forever changed. I saw landscape photography as a way to earn a living, and when it became more and more difficult to sell black and white, I changed to color.

That was back in the late 1960s, when everyone had green shag carpets and gold drapes. The colors of nature matched everyone’s homes. It was also a time when photography was NOT recognized as art. Even Ansel Adams was having a hard time selling his work. During that time I only viewed photography as a means to earning a dollar. I wasn’t emotionally involved in it as an artistic expression. I was good at what I did. We ended up with a company of 200 employees selling my color photography as wall decor in JC Penny’s, Montgomery Wards, Sears. It was a big business, which I eventually sold.

Before I sold the company, it had gotten to the point that I could look at a scene and tell you how many dollars I could make if I photographed it. In other words, I wouldn’t photograph something unless it had enough dollar value. It wasn’t until my son was killed by a drunk driver
in 1986 that I began using photography as an artistic expression. It was at that time I made a conscious choice that photography was my art form, and I was going to use it for that. I went back to photographing in black and white and began photographing those images that I liked, not caring if they had any potential to sell or not. I didn’t care if I made money with my images, I just wanted to spend my life photographing what I liked to photograph. I was pretty much amazed when the black and white images actually sold. I am still thankful, and humbled, to realized that I am one of the few black and white photographers in the U.S.A. that makes a living by only doing landscape photography.

And, so, the answer to your question is that I knew photography was my life’s work after I had been doing it for over 20 years.

Of the many places you’ve photographed, what makes Florida so special to you?

When I arrived in Florida I had been a landscape photographer for 15 years, photographing the west coast of the U.S.A. We came to Florida because we had raised our children in a sailboat, and loved the waters of Florida, the Bahamas, etc. At first, I didn’t see anything to photograph in Florida. There are no outstanding, dynamic, geological structures in Florida around which to frame a composition, as there is in the west. It took me two years to “see” Florida, and then I fell in love. I fell in love with the fact that Florida is alive. There are birds, bugs, and animals everywhere. The weather is exhilarating with dynamic skies and incredible light. The light is different here. I can’t explain it. The state is also filled with wonderful textures and an environment that is constantly changing. Someone once said that landscape photography is making order out of chaos. Florida is a supreme challenge in that respect. There rarely is a single feature that one can make a composition around, such as there is in the west with the boulders, rocks, and mountains. In Florida, a photograph has to create a feeling of the space that is being photographed. The sub-tropical climate of Florida makes its environment very much a vision of chaos.

Making a composition out of chaos isn’t easy, but the challenge of it is fulfilling to me. It wasn’t long before I recognized that Florida was being overrun by developers just as California had been and still is. I looked around and no one was recording the beauty of Florida. Sure, there were a lot of bird photographers, and animal photographers, but no one was photographing the environment. I decided to photograph the state, not because I thought images of swamps would sell, but because I felt someone needed to show people how beautiful Florida is, and what they will be missing if they rip it all down and replace it with houses and strip malls. I love the state. It is in my heart, and so it is hard to explain with words.

What advantages do you see in the (very) large formats you work with?

The greatest advantage is being able to capture the detail in the image; to be able to see, in the print, what I saw when I photographed the scene.

Another advantage is that it is slower than smaller format photography, which allows me to enjoy the scene before me. It isn’t just shoot and move on. Often I have to stay in one place for several hours waiting for the wind to stop, or the sun to come out from behind a cloud. During that time, I enjoy the environment. I compare large format photography to fishing. 35mm is like a bass fisherman. If the fish isn’t there, turn on those big motors and zoom across the lake to see if it’s somewhere else. Large format photography is like a cane-pole fisherman. They just sit and wait, and enjoy the moment while they’re waiting.

The other advantage is that taking a picture isn’t easy. Setting up the equipment is time consuming, and often, out in the swamps, very difficult. I don’t take pictures unless I’m very sure I like what I’m seeing. Thus the large format camera has helped to train my eyes to see better before I take the picture.

What mistakes do you believe are made by newcomers to landscape photography?

They use cameras that are too small. They try to take a broad vista with a small camera; taking in more than the negative can capture. They are in too much of a hurry. The scenery before them may be so remarkable that they feel they have to rush hither and thither to catch it all, and in the process end up with a lot of film with average pictures on it.

When I was an Artist in Residence at the Rocky Mountain National Park, I decided to photograph the Alberta Falls. The hike was around two miles. I spent ten hours on the trail and never made it to the falls. There was so much beauty around me, that I didn’t see any reason to rush past it.

The next day I continued the hike up to the falls, and came to the conclusion that the hike I enjoyed the day before was of much greater beauty than the falls. Too many people are in a rush to see and photograph everything, and in the process they see nothing.

I would suggest that landscape photographers put tape over their view-finder. By doing that they will learn to “see” what they are photographing before they photograph it. The object of landscape photography is to give the viewer of the image a sense of being there, and unless the photographer has that feeling, he can’t take a photograph of it. The biggest problem landscape photographers have is in learning to “see” the feeling.

Which artists inspire you?

I have always loved the Hudson Bay Period. I love the way they used the light to highlight the shapes of nature. I love their skies and clouds. In terms of photographers that have inspired me, I’d say Ansel Adams and Wynn Bullock.

I admire Ansel Adams on several levels. He saw the need to inspire others, through his photography, to take care of the environment. He also fought hard to make photography recognized as an art form, leaving a clearer path for others to follow. But, his ability to attain the full scale of black to white with wonderful gray tones is his most impressionable legacy. It is true he had some dynamic scenes in his photography because he was able to “see” what he was photographing, but without the darkroom technical ability to get that scene onto paper, the feeling would have been lost. I admire that mystical ability of his to achieve, on paper, what he saw and felt when he was viewing the scene. As for Wynn Bullock, I love his angle of view and the way he used light.

If you had to change something about the business aspect of fine art photography, what would it be?

Business just is. I pretty much accept it as being part of life, and “that is that” so to speak. It would be nice if I didn’t have to cope with business and could concentrate on only being an artist, but that isn’t reality. So I just accept the fact that business is business. The only thing I would change is to not have to do it at all. But, that isn’t going to happen, so the best thing to do with it is the best job I can, and then carry on with the other part of my “real” life. I do feel it is unfortunate that business isn’t taught, or taught with much depth, in art schools. The majority of young people I meet really do want to be independent artists; self-employed. Yet, they know nothing about business. It almost seems like the learning institutions are setting young artists up for failure. Business is a part of life, and in order to have some sort of success in life a person MUST understand the basic aspects of business, whether they like it or not.

How do you feel about the incorporation of computers into large format photography?

To me, computers are another kind of enlarger. I have no problems with putting one of my negatives on a scanner and using a computer to print it out. However, right now, I haven’t seen advanced enough technology to achieve the results I am looking for. I’m sure it will happen soon, though.

I am often asked if I think digital cameras will replace the “old fashion” large format cameras. I don’t think they will. I do think digital cameras will replace 35mm and someday, maybe up to 4”x5” cameras, but I don’t think they will replace large format cameras in the realm of 5”x7” and up. I think the very large format cameras will be considered “traditionalist” photography, and will always exist.

Why did you open your own gallery?

I wanted a place where I could display a large body of my work. Most galleries will only show 2-3 pieces, and only small images at that. Because I use large format cameras, I feel my work is best viewed when it is hung in sizes ranging from 36”x46” to 5’x8’. I know of no gallery that will give up that much wall space to one artist.

Has your web site had any effect on your business?

Probably. At this time we don’t have a secure site, so we don’t get orders directly from the site. When people call in and order something, they normally don’t tell us if they were on our web site before they ordered, so we don’t really have a track record to know if it makes a financial difference. This coming year we are doing some redesigning of the site, and making it a secure site. It will be interesting to see what happens.

We get a tremendous number of hits on the site, so I do think it is making some kind of difference. I believe enough in the concept of web sites that I continue to enlarge and work with mine. It is a way for me to communicate with the world and I value that ability.

I think that because our gallery is in a National Preserve in the Everglades, located between Naples and Miami, we are often seen as a tourist stopping point. I think people who are traveling use the web to determine what they will do in various areas of their travels. We are on a tourist route and so, the web has allowed people to know we are along the road to their destinations.

For more information on Clyde Butcher, visit