Twin Peaks

Adams and Butcher at MoA: Grand masters of sharp-focus nature photography

The lettering on the wall at the top of the grand staircase at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art (MoA) says it all: "Ansel Adams & Clyde Butcher." It's a match made in nature lover heaven, an inspired pairing of American photographers that prompts contrasts as well as comparisons.

The California-based Adams remains best known for his glorious black-and-white images of the American West, many of them taken in national parks. He was also adept at portraiture and other subject matter, as amply demonstrated by the more than 120 photographs in his part of the MoA exhibition, "Ansel Adams: A Celebration of Genius." Thanks to the widespread reproduction of his landscapes in books and calendars, on postcards and posters, Adams is a superstar in the world of nature photography -- perhaps the closest the United States has come to having a "photographer laureate."

Butcher, whose smaller portion of the MoA show is called "Clyde Butcher: Photographer of the Wilderness," made his mark in the Sunshine State and has devoted a lot of energy to capturing the last pristine remains of a Florida that's disappearing at a continually accelerated pace. He settled in the Everglades, literally: His home and primary studio are in Ochopee, in the Big Cypress National Preserve west of Miami. (With his daughter and son-in-law as partners, he opened a second gallery and studio, including a darkroom large enough to accommodate visitors, in Venice, Florida, in 2000.) A famous photo of Butcher finds him waist-deep in swampwater with one of his large-format cameras.

Ansel Adams: Big subjects, small prints
Ansel Adams: Big subjects, small prints

Adams died at age 82 two decades ago, about the same time Butcher was experimenting with color pictures of Florida before moving on to black and white. Both men had gotten their start in California in careers other than photography. Adams came from a wealthy San Francisco family and was groomed to be a concert pianist. Butcher enrolled as a math major at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, then finished his degree in architecture.

The photography bug bit the teenage Adams during a visit to Yosemite National Park, although it wasn't until 1930 that he traded keyboards for cameras. A decade later, he helped establish the first photography department in a major museum at New York's Museum of Modern Art. From then on, the accolades accumulated, up to and after Adams' death. He was named official photographer of the Sierra Club, which published editions of his work. The year he died, 1984, Congress designated a portion of land between his beloved Yosemite and the John Muir Wilderness Area as the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, and a year later, a mountain in the area was named after him. The Ansel Adams Center opened in 1989 and promotes his work as well as that of other photographers.

While Adams was building on his national and international fame, Butcher worked as a commercial photographer. He specialized in images of architectural models and on the side took color shots of landscapes for department stores, which used them in merchandise displays. Although he has had his own successes, he's still, inexplicably, something of a regional phenomenon. Consider his unofficial status as "the Ansel Adams of the Everglades" and you get a sense of how he has labored for decades in the shadow of his most famous influence.

MoA's dual show helps correct the imbalance by giving Butcher his due without slighting Adams. Indeed, it's Butcher's dramatically large-scale pictures that are the attention-getters at the top of the stairs, where the big curving wall to the right displays eight pieces. Among them: the justly famous Gaskin Bay #5(1998), which captures a pair of bird-capped mangrove islets that seem to float on the velvety surface of a channel near Everglades City; and Indian Key #15 (1997), in which two clusters of mangled, sun-bleached trees, shot against a sky marked with wispy cloud trails, evoke improbable beauty in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. For Pepperwood Redwood Forest #1 (1996), Butcher ventured into Adams territory, California's Avenue of the Giants State Park, where the low light and dense foliage required a ten-minute exposure to achieve the sharp focus favored by both photographers.

Although this prominent grouping of eight Butchers (with another four on the wall opposite) exerts an almost inexorable pull, the exhibition actually starts where his work intersects with that of Adams, just after you reach the museum's second floor. The rest of the smaller Butcher show, featuring a few more Florida shots and a rocky landscape in Utah's Escalante National Monument, stretches down a freestanding wall to the left.

The Adams show, organized in 2002 by the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film to coincide with the photographer's centenary, begins on the right and snakes its way through the rest of the main upstairs galleries. What I found most striking, at least initially, was the contrast between Butcher's oversized prints and Adams' much more modestly scaled work. The grandeur of Adams' subject matter so often seems at odds with his relatively small gelatin silver prints. (Butcher works in the same medium, although he also uses selenium during processing.)

What binds Adams and Butcher is their common passion and respect for the wilderness. One look at Adams' Thunder Cloud from Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California (c. 1956) is all it takes to recognize the awe nature inspired in Adams, not to mention the impact his aesthetic has had on Butcher. As so many of their photographs confirm, for instance, the two had a mutual love affair with clouds and their infinite photographic possibilities.

Early in the Adams show, three shots prominently feature the moon, captured over the course of three decades: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), Moonrise from Glacier Point(1953), and Half Dome(1960). They convincingly make the point that Adams' work maintained an amazing consistency over the long haul. Aptly positioned across the gallery is Butcher's Moonrise (1986), a similar shot of the moon and towering clouds centered above a stretch of dwarf cypresses in Big Cypress.

Other photos scattered throughout the exhibition display Adams' feel for perfect lighting no matter what his subject matter. For Rails and Jet Trails, Roseville, California(1953), he catches the play of sunlight on curving railroad tracks that mirror the meandering jet trails in the sky above. Adams even dabbles in abstraction, as in Stained Wallpaper near Alturas, California(1960) and Water and Foam(c. 1955).

After seeing such mastery, especially as demonstrated in the landscapes that make up the bulk of the show, it's easy to dismiss some of Adams' other work as ordinary. That would be a mistake, although his shots of buildings, his still lifes, and his portraits aren't nearly as powerful. The latter are notable mainly for their historical value, as in the pictures of fellow photographer Edward Weston, painter John Marin, and camera pioneer Edwin H. Land.

This double show winds back on itself to end near that curving wall of Butchers I mentioned encountering at the top of the stairs. The finale, displayed with no fanfare on a small wall between galleries, is a grouping of three photos, two small ones by Adams and a much larger one by Butcher.

The Adams pictures -- Lake Tahoe Thunder Storm(1937) and The Golden Gate, San Francisco, Before the Building of the Bridge(c. 1932) -- are cloud studies that would be magnificent enough on their own. But they're paired with Little Butternut Key #2 (1997), a shot taken at Florida Bay near Key Largo that I think is one of Butcher's masterpieces, a deceptively simple composition featuring mountainous storm clouds above a sandy sliver of land, dotted with birds, that juts out into the water. The wisdom of bringing Adams and Butcher together in one exhibition couldn't be more clearly reinforced.

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