Clyde Butcher is one of America's leading landscape photographers. He has photographed in most areas of the United States but is probably best known for his work in Florida where he lives. His iconic images of the Everglades are now as well-known as Ansel Adams' photographs of Yosemite and he continues in the tradition of fine art mono landscape photography using traditional darkroom methods pioneered by Adams. Like Adams, Clyde is active in conservation work; his photographs did much to highlight the dangers to the Everglades environment and deserves credit for helping to bring about the policies to protect the wetlands which are now in place.
Clyde's work is distinguished by elegant composition and superb tonal control in the printing process. He differs from Adams in the scale of his work, often printing his negatives up to 60 x 48 inches. At this size, the superb rendition from his large-format view camera, delicate tonal gradations achieved in the printing process and his ability to seize the right moment when natural elements cohere into the perfect composition give his image huge impact. No wonder he is so popular in America today.
Clyde Butcher's large enlarger
Having seen his huge photographs many times, I was pleased to be able to visit Clyde's studio in Venice, Fl. today and joined a tour of the darkroom led by his assistant Paul. In the middle of his huge workspace is the enlarger he uses to project negatives onto sheets of photographic paper to make his large images. Paul explained that when you're working at this size virtually every piece of equipment has to be custom-made. The enlarger is in fact a large commercial view camera which Clyde bought and then adapted himself. The paper is held on a large board which moves along a track to a maximum distance of about 15 feet between the enlarger lens and the paper. Huge home made metal frames which resemble bed frames are used to crop the images. Clyde dodges and burns in the traditional way even on this large scale.
A print about half way along the enlarger track
There are 10 enlargers in total in the darkroom, mostly old equipment which Clyde has bought used but all large scale. Paul told us that he often works a number of prints at a time, keeping all the exposure times in his head.
Three of Clyde's 10 enlargers
When the paper has been exposed they are transported into a neighbouring chemical rooms and developed, fixed, stopped and washed much as we all did in our darkroom days, the only difference being the huge scale on which he works.
This was a fascinating look at the studio and work process of a great photographer and superb printer. In discussions with Clyde, everyone wanted to know what he thought of digital imagery. Paul told us that he is experimenting with digital but, at the age of 72, he is unlikely to make any major changes. He is proud of his outstanding skill in traditional wet printing methods and believes the uniqueness of each individual print is what makes film photography a superior process to digital.
Clyde Butcher's photography can be seen at http://www.clydebutcher.com/
All text and photographs © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.