Jurassic Parque

Clive Butcher's photos of Cuba's forests and mountains have an otherworldly strangeness about them

After learning that the Coral Springs Museum of Art was hosting its third Clyde Butcher exhibition, I wondered what was left to say about the "Ansel Adams of the Everglades." After all, it was only eight months ago that ArtServe served up a retrospective of the photographer's four-decade career. And a little more than a year ago, the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale presented an ambitious exhibition pairing the work of Butcher with that of Adams.

But the Coral Springs Museum's new show makes a distinct contribution to the Butcher legacy. It's called "Cuba: The Natural Beauty," and it's the first exhibition to feature some of the photographs Butcher took during three trips he made to Cuba in 2002 and 2003.

Butcher's expeditions were at the invitation of Luis Gomez-Echeverri, who coordinates United Nations programs on the island, and Parke Wright III, a Naples businessman. As part of a worldwide U.N. initiative to promote mountain conservation, Gomez-Echeverri and Wright organized the Cuba-based Conference for the Sustainable Habitat of the Mountain, and Butcher, a fervent environmentalist, readily agreed to participate.

Banao #1 is a dramatic departure for Butcher.
Colby Katz
Banao #1 is a dramatic departure for Butcher.

Details

On display through November 19, 954-340-5000.
Coral Springs Museum of Art, 2855 Coral Springs Dr., Coral Springs

There are only two dozen silver gelatin photographs in the exhibition, and Butcher has limited each to an unusually small edition of only 15 hand-developed prints. (In other words, don't plan on getting a bargain on one.) The pictures are both a departure from and an extension of the photographer's well-known style. I was immediately struck by the shift in scale, from the large-scale works typically associated with Butcher to the scaled-down prints here. Just over half of them are 30 inches by 40 inches — not tiny, by any means, but significantly smaller than his usual format — while the remainder are only 16 inches by 20 inches.

This downsizing yields mixed results. The smaller images draw us in for closer inspection, creating a sense of intimacy that's not really possible with Butcher's monumental prints. Then again, there's something to be said for the grandeur of those huge photos, which emphasize, instead of intimacy, a sense of urgency. When we see one of Butcher's magnificent Everglades landscapes rendered larger than life, there's no doubt the photographer wants us to realize how much we stand to lose.

Butcher has previously ventured into the mountains of the American West — given his affinity with Adams, how could he not? — but he has a distinctly different take on the remote mountainous regions of Cuba. Maybe it's the uncertainty of being in unfamiliar territory, because some of the shots in this show have the feel of work by a stranger in a strange land. In the text panel to Magote #5, which is at the beginning of the exhibition, Butcher mentions that his wife, Nikki, says the picture makes her think of the setting for Jurassic Park, and she's right. The towering masses of cumulus clouds may be pure Clyde Butcher, but the lush, tropical landscape below, with vaguely ominous mountains on the horizon, could easily be Michael Crichton by way of Steven Spielberg. Butcher even lets us glimpse a couple of small buildings peeking through the jungle at the bottom of the image.

Around the corner, the small print Punta Mota has an even more alien ambience. The setting is a narrow, pebbly beach backed by a rocky, coarse-textured cliff dotted with some scrub. The long exposure renders the tide as a streaming blur, and the artist's trademark clouds have been all but banished to a tiny swath barely visible in the extreme lower left of the image. I can't imagine mistaking this for an American beach. The same is true of Coral Coast #2, which captures a great sprawl of coral dotted with some scraggly plants that seem more suggestive of the desert than of the coast.

Sometimes, a peculiar thing happens when Butcher homes in on a patch of foliage. Unlike similar studies in American locations as diverse as Florida, California, and Colorado, some of these Cuban shots border on bland. Instead of popping into sharp relief, the flora seems less differentiated, less vivid. And in the smaller format, the detail that distinguishes the American shots gets lost.

One glorious exception is Comandancia de la Plata #3 , a medium-sized image more or less diagonally bisected by the trunk of a tree in the foreground. The focus, however, is on a huge bromeliad perched low on the tree trunk. The whole scene is drenched in bright light, which gives the bromeliad an ethereal, translucent glow.

In two variations on a theme, both called Vista del Alto de Naranjo, Butcher shoots from a mountaintop looking out over the Sierra Maestra range, with the distant mountains framed at the sides and bottom by dense foliage. As he indicates in the text panel to one of the images, he had to wait for a break in the weather on a rainy day, which explains the unsettled-looking sky that contrasts with the clear, velvety texture of the mountains.

A few of the photographs are fairly dramatic departures for Butcher, who almost never includes humans or man-made structures in his work. Banao #1 marks the most radical — it's a graveyard with elaborate headstones that resemble tiny chapels, shot at the request of Nikki Butcher. In Caballet de Casa, mountains form a backdrop for an expanse of farmland dotted with a few palm trees and populated by a horse, a small egret, and a pair of field workers.

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