A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend the day meeting and photographing a living photographic master, Clyde Butcher and his Big Cypress Swamp Walk. Clyde Butcher is a master at large format black and white photography.
The opportunity came when the annual Presidents Day Swamp Walk and meet and greet was held at his gallery located in the middle of the Swamp between Miami and Naples. Clyde has always been someone I’ve admired, not only by his photographs, but for the process of creating and producing his art. I’ve been making lists of people I’d like to photograph and he has been near the top for a long time. I had the idea of using my newly acquired Crown Graphic 4×5 press camera from the 1950’s also as Clyde uses large format photography for his art. I had never used it before, but watched YouTube videos and read blogs in an attempt to capture a large format master with my own large format camera. That was the plan anyway.
I reached out to his daughter Jackie who runs the business side of things and she was fine with me getting a couple of portraits of her father while I was there. I can’t say I wasn’t at least a bit nervous considering I would be photographing a “peer” who happened to be considered the “Ansel Adams of Florida. I guess it’s kind of how John Keatley felt while photographing Annie Leibovitz but once I arrived and saw how approachable and down to Earth Clyde really was the nerves subsided.
I set out to find a suitable location for my quick and painless portraits with my Nikon D3s DSLR and found a spot behind the house that used to be the full time home for Clyde and his wife Niki. It’s very secluded with a small pond that trickles into the swamp. I figured this was it and “summoned” my subject!
Clyde and Jackie came out on the golf cart and while I had most everything set up (lights, composition etc) I still had to get him in the right spot, knowing I only had a couple minutes as he had to get back to the gallery to sign books, sell $10,000 prints and mingle with the hundreds of Swamp Walkers who had come from all over.
Clyde kind of chuckled when he saw where I set things up and said “You know this is where Loose Screw (the affable 12 foot alligator) likes to hang out.” I told him it looked like the place I’d hang out if I had a loose screw so it made sense. He laughed and we were off! I got a couple of frames with the set up and had my 4×5 ready to go on a tripod in the shade. I asked him if we could take a couple of frames with the 4×5 and he instantly became interested, although he was a good sport for me and even did some dancing poses (an interesting site for a rather large guy with a big Santa beard, flowered shirt and cowboy hat I might add).
If you aren’t familiar with a 1950’s 4×5 film camera (which I was just barely) you have to meter the light, set your exposure, focus, insert the film holder, remove the dark slide (which protects the large sheet of film) take the photo, re-insert the dark slide and repeat. It’s a lot of unfamiliar steps, but I thought I had it all figured out for a couple of sheets of film. Or at least that’s what I thought. This thing is a box with switches and buttons. Nothing is automatic and everything is about precision.
First problem, I couldn’t find my light meter (which I later found in my pocket) and was fumbling through my gear trying not to hold Mr. Butcher and Jackie any longer than I already had. Clyde helped me guesstimate an exposure based on the “sunny 16” rule and we decided upon f/22 @1/15th of a second. Ok..I had my exposure, composition and focus…..and I pushed the shutter release cable to get my first exposure on my vintage, large format film camera of a large format photography icon. EUREKA!
I put the dark slide back in the film holder, switched it around (each holder accepts 2 sheets of film) and started to repeat the process for one more frame. Focus check, exposure check, remove the dark slide, check…”Wait! Clyde said…”You just screwed that one up”…as he laughed and started to walk back to the cart.
I had removed the wrong dark slide and exposed the film I had just used to get the first exposure! His daughter said “Awe, he’s nervous” and I said, “I’m not nervous, it’s simply the first couple frames I’ve shot with the camera.” Clyde said “Well, you’ll remember those first few frames as long as you live” and he was right.
I didn’t get the frames on the 4×5 but I have the digital images, the memory and a great story which is just as valuable for me.
Thanks again to Clyde, Jackie, Johnnie and everyone who made the day truly special.
Here are a few images from the Swamp Walk.