The opening line of the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas' famous The Everglades: River of Grass kept echoing through my mind as I walked among the 22 black-and-white photographs that make up "A Portrait of the Everglades: The Photography of Clyde Butcher." Again and again, Butcher's magnificent images, on display at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood through late July, reinforce Douglas' conviction.
Douglas set out to save the Everglades because of its singular importance to the South Florida ecosystem. Butcher's quest to capture and preserve this environment through photographs is a matter of both aesthetics and mysticism. As he explains in a brochure for his Big Cypress Gallery, located in the Everglades about halfway between Miami and Naples: "Wilderness, to me, is a spiritual necessity. When my son was killed by a drunk driver it was to the wilderness that I fled in hopes of regaining my serenity and equilibrium. The mysterious spiritual experience of being close to nature helped restore my soul."
By now it's a cliche to refer to Butcher as the Ansel Adams of the Everglades, but the comparison is appropriate. Just as Adams staked his claim on the majestic landscapes of the American West, so has Butcher made the Everglades and surrounding areas his own. And, as the above quote makes clear, Butcher's emotional and mystical connections to his subject matter are every bit as profound as Adams' were to his.
But there's also a striking difference between the two artists. Adams provided us with a new way of looking at old material. Much of his work features national monuments of nature, so to speak, places "used up" by countless years of being looked at and photographed. But Adams reinvigorated them; through his photographs, we see them anew.
Butcher, by contrast, offers images that seem to have been brought back from another planet, so that we see them clearly for the first time. Even those of us who live close to it find the South Florida wilderness strange and exotic. Just consider some of the place names that become both subject matter and titles for Butcher's pictures: Cayo Costa, Fisheating Creek, Kissimmee River, Loosescrew Sanctuary, Lake Istokpoga, Little Butternut Key, Matlacha Pass, Robert's Lake Strand, and Ochopee. Stripped of any context, the words have the ring of excerpts from a Dadaist nonsense poem.
Seen through Butcher's eyes, however, these places -- utterly familiar and alien at the same time -- achieve a transcendent grandeur. A good example is Gaskin Bay, a 1989 picture taken among the Ten Thousand Islands just off the southwest coast of the Florida peninsula. The shot is dominated by a large, off-center mangrove, its sprawling, shell-encrusted prop roots both anchoring the tree in mud beneath the shallow water and lifting it above the surface. The tree takes on an otherworldly beauty.
In Silver Springs, the exposed roots and "knees" of cypress trees overlap in small, delicate arcs at water's edge. Butcher picks up on a subtle, almost kinetic energy at work here, so that the shapes begin to seem like a tightly knit row of dancers executing a particularly tricky step.
Very little sky is visible between the thick, vertical shafts of tree trunks in Silver Springs, but many of Butcher's other photos are set against breathtaking skies. He's especially adept at giving clouds an amazing immediacy and tangibility. (When I look at the clouds in a typical Butcher photograph, I recall that one of the things that first drew me to South Florida was the seemingly endless expanse of sky.)
A large, vertical shot called Little Butternut Key uses the Florida sky to dramatic effect. All we see of the key is a thin strip of sandbar curving into the shoals from the lower right-hand corner of the image; meanwhile a couple dozen gulls stand on the outer reaches of sand. Above this minimalist landscape, a vaguely defined mountain of cumulus clouds dominates the sky, with bands of more-sharply edged clouds below, at both front and rear. If you look closely, you'll see a handful of birds that are so miniscule compared to the clouds that they seem like scratches on the surface of the photograph.
In the stunning Matlacha Pass, the clouds take over the image altogether. On the horizon are the thinnest strands of land, which are overwhelmed by the vivid contours of huge, billowy masses of flatbottomed cumulus clouds. Even the water below is in thrall to these clouds and their shimmering reflections.
Because it's so easy to fall under the spell of Butcher's work, it's important to remember those times, not so long ago, when the Everglades was perceived as an obstacle to the development of South Florida, an unwieldy swamp waiting to be drained and turned into real estate. And what of all the strange, subtropical foliage -- mangroves with their spidery, asymmetrical prop-root systems, cypresses with their odd, knobby protuberances? Who would have thought of them as objects of beauty?
Clyde Butcher, for one. Butcher may have initially intended simply to record the beauty of the Everglades, both as spiritual sustenance for himself and as a legacy to the future. But the power of his gorgeous images is such that he may well be contributing to the literal preservation of his subject matter as well. Marjory Stoneman Douglas would have heartily approved.
"A Portrait of the Everglades: The Photography of Clyde Butcher" is on display until July 26 at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood, 954-921-3274.