I recently learned that legendary large format black and white film photographer Clyde Butcher is now using a digital camera. Note: the image on the left is via Clyde’s personal website at http://www.clydebutcher.com/the-artist. Before I dive into the core of this article, if you are not familiar with Clyde Butcher then you are missing out on a wonderful human being that is a legend to many people for many different reasons. Clyde is a humanitarian, artist, and an all around “blue chip” gentlemen. Please visit a gallery that exhibits his fine art darkroom prints to fully understand the scope and depth of his talents as an artist.
To fully understand the context of my forthcoming reaction and personal comments about Clyde’s use of a digital camera, please review the two paragraphs below first.
In this post on Clyde’s Blog he writes about his use of digital photography for the first time in history to the best of my knowledge. I quote Clyde directly and choose not to fix the grammar or syntax errors in his post. Clyde writes: “Well…I think I’m going to have to admit in a public forum that I’m actually growing old. At 72 years old it has become very difficult for me to carry my large format camera gear any distance. That 60 pound backpack hurts my back if I walk to far. Because of this problem, I’ve decided to try digital. It’s certainly a lot lighter to carry on my back! I love photography, and will NOT be giving up large format photography, it just means I may not be able to use the large format camera as often. The photographs below are taken with the Cambo Artus with a digital 36 megapixel Sony a 7R camera and RZ Mamiya lenses. I manipulate the image on my computer, then print the photographs on an Epson Sylus 4800 or 9800 printer. I use archival Ultrachrome K3 ink and print on archival Harman Hahnemuhle paper. The limited edition photograph is then mounted and matted to current archival standards. I sign and nuber each image. ”
I’ve also include this article posted in the Florida Sportsman Forum for two reasons. First, there is more technical information disclosed about Clyde’s digital equipment and there is a favorable response to Clyde’s use of the new digital gear. Please note that I left all of the grammar and syntax errors as is because I am quoting the source: “Noted large format photographer Clyde Butcher is now a Sony user. If you don’t know his work go to his website. Below is a portion of a mass braodcast email from him: “Well…I think I’m going to have to admit in a public forum that I’m actually growing old. At 72 years old it has become very difficult for me to carry my large format camera gear any distance. That 60 pound backpack hurts my back if I walk to far. I love photography, and I won’t give up large format photography…it’s just not going to happen as often. I’ve decided to try digital. It’s certainly a lot lighter to carry on my back! I purchased a Sony A 7R that has 36 megabytes. I also purchased a Cannon 17 Tilt & Shift, Voitlander 12, 15, 21 mm.” The Sony 7R is a new mirrorless 35mm full frame that has been available just a few months. In any account, I am sure he will be showing us in no time that it is the vision and not the camera. I hope he continues to share his wonderful vision with us for many years to come.”
Clyde Butcher – A Hero & Legend to Many
Before sharing my reaction and personal comments about Clyde announcing his use of digital equipment, please proceed with the understanding the views I express are my initial reaction and I will likely have additional thoughts and comments in the future. Versus trying to piece together flowing paragraphs, I think I can best communicate my thoughts via bullet points because many of them are unrelated, but none the less important. My reaction and thoughts at this time are not positive, nor do I support the path that Clyde has taken. But, also understand that Clyde doesn’t need anyone’s approval, and certainly not mine to make any decision about his current or future work. I am not judgmental about the decision he made, but I am genuinely sad and disappointed.
When Clyde arose from the swamps in Florida in 1986 after the horrific tragedy of his son’s death, Clyde relinquished his ties to color photography and he destroyed all of it and then vowed to only use black and white film. I can’t imagine the depth of Clyde’s sorrow, but I can relate because I have lost my dad, and my brother and sister. This type of loss forever changes a person and a feel connected to Clyde in this way. When I first learned of Clyde’s ruthless dedication to large format black and white film I understood it instantly. When I experience a scene in nature I feel it through the choice of my film. My internal thoughts and emotions are tied to the characteristics of my film and they literally become one as they dance together. I know what my clouds will look like in my final print, I know the range of shadows that I will be crafting and the mood of my story is directly linked to my choice of film. As a long time black and white film photographer, I understand all of the subtle nuances and downsides to the medium as well as the unique qualities that allow analog photographers working in the darkroom to express themselves via the medium. Clyde has mastered the art and medium of large format black and white film and harnessed every last drop of its capabilities through the lens of the Big Cypress Swamps. It is impossible to think about the Big Cypress Swamps and not think about Clyde Buther. Not many people can make this claim and it be true. If you have ever had the pleasure of viewing one of his large darkroom prints, you certainly understand my statement and his unique ability to communicate his vision via his art. This gets at the heart of my sorrow about Clyde’s choice to publically use digital equipment and offer digital ink prints for sale.
I think it is different when Clyde explores digital gear to enable his ability to create new images for the pure love of the photography versus using it in a professional capacity. It is clearly different in my mind when that exploration leads to a place where he offers digital ink prints for sale. At this stage of Clyde’s life, I have to assume he is thinking about his legacy. His entire brand and body of work that started after his vow to only use black and white film is hinged on this choice. I believe Clyde found the needle in the haystack over the years as he ultimately figured out how to create one of a kind ultra-large darkroom prints. I personally link Clyde’s tragic loss to his body of work that he has built since 1986. No one in the world that I am aware of can do this like Clyde. This body of work is, in fact, his legacy. It makes him different from everyone else. I see and feel the link between Clyde’s body of analog darkroom prints and the tragic loss of his son. Clyde arose from the swamps where he found peace and found new purpose. This relationship between his personal tragedy, large format black and white film, and the Big Cypress Swaps are the legacy of Clyde Butcher in my mind. To offer digital prints in parallel with his iconic analog darkroom prints just feels wrong to me. It isn’t my intention to overstep my bounds with these statements and I hope that Clyde understands this. It isn’t my intent to be disrespectful to Clyde with my views and opinion. Clyde is a hero and a legend to me.
Clyde was my “go-to” example of why large format and film is not dead and in many cases, the best option to express your vision. I will do my best provide more detail in the forthcoming paragraphs and bullet points. But, first I want to share a few of the reasons why Clyde Butcher is a legend to me and many people:
- Clyde Butcher is a legend and hero to me and to many other people to include large format photographers, darkroom enthusiasts, naturalists, and many more.
- Clyde has been able to achieve things in the world of fine art that a very tiny percentage could ever hope to come close to achieving. To know Clyde as a fine art photographer is to view his analog darkroom prints in person. He simply has a gift and ability to communicate and evoke emotion about his passion for the swamps unlike any other human being that I am aware of.
- Clyde has been able to link to a cause greater than himself and use his skills as a photographer to shine light on his passion in a way that is truly admirable. I respect Clyde deeply for this and many other reasons to include his life-long journey that he continues to share with his wife Niki. According to Clyde’s personal website the two were married in 1963.
- Clyde and I share a love and appreciation for Ansel Adams. Clyde states “he saw an Ansel Adams Photography exhibit at Yosemite National Park, and was so impressed by Adams’ work that he began to photograph landscapes in black and white. Clyde left the architecture field in 1970 and began exhibiting his black and white photographs at art festivals.” Clyde’s work is every bit as good as Ansel’s ever was and arguably even better in many cases.
- Clyde’s decision to literally burn his color photographs and solely focus on black and white is something that I will never forget. His ruthless prioritization and instinct to follow his gut continues to guide me today. “In 1986, Clyde’s 17 year old son Ted was killed by a drunk driver. After which Clyde found solace in the wilderness of the Big Cypress National Preserve, where the mysterious, spiritual experience of being close to nature helped to restore his soul. Resolving to relinquish his ties to color photography, he destroyed his color work and vowed to use only black and white film. He purchased an 8″x10″ view camera and enlarger.” (source: clydebutcher.com/the-artist)
- And then there is Clyde’s “8×10 Beard”. I call this the “8×10 Beard” because only 8×10 and bigger large format film photographers can and should be able to sport such an awesome display of manhood. If Clyde continues on with digital then we may have to ask him to shave the beard. I hope it doesn’t come to this!
- The points above do not fully capture the scope of Clyde’s value as a person or photographer.
My Reaction to Clyde’s Announcement
As I noted above, I am deeply disappointed and sad that Clyde is using a digital camera. Even though he clearly states in his blog post that he will continue to use his large format cameras, it saddens me. I see a frequency of digital-based images on Clyde’s Facebook page that is very noticeable to me. I suspect he may have written about his parallel use of digital and analog knowing he would receive some negative feedback from a percentage of his followers. Why does this make me so sad? Clyde has given all of us hope that we can continue to love and work in large format film photography and achieve things bigger than ourselves. In the end, many can argue the medium isn’t important, but for long-time darkroom photographer’s it is very important. I also believe his personal brand and allure of his work is directly tied to his unique ability to create huge and captivating analog darkroom prints. The X-Factor that is part of Clyde’s fine art gallery prints are directly related to characteristics uniquely synonymous with optical darkroom printing. No one in the world can do this like Clyde. It is also important from a historical perspective. All of us large format film and darkroom photographers are dwindling to a tiny percentage of the art being created today. I suspect I am part of the last generation that will actively practice analog darkroom photography. I have been an advocate for the last five years writing about darkroom photography on my black and white blog. I have invested my personal time to write many of these articles so that others can learn the craft and art of analog photography. I have received emails and financial support via my subscribers from all around the world because of this blog. When I get an email from someone sharing how my information has helped or inspired them, it literally impacts me to my core and fuels me to keep writing.
Clyde stated in his blog post “Well…I think I’m going to have to admit in a public forum that I’m actually growing old. At 72 years old it has become very difficult for me to carry my large format camera gear any distance. That 60 pound backpack hurts my back if I walk to far. Because of this problem, I’ve decided to try digital.” I personally am not aligned to this thinking and offer Clyde a few other options that do not include the use of digital gear in his iconic art.
- The knowledge and talent that Clyde has earned and gained over the decades is extremely valuable. I hope that Clyde will consider adopting me and allowing a 30 year student of analog photography to work with him and learn from him so that his knowledge and work can live on through me and the people that I touch after he is unable to work. I have a fully functional mobile darkroom and living quarters in my XL Sprinter van. As soon as Clyde calls me, I can head to Florida to begin our work together.
- Clyde states that his 60 lb. 8×10 rig is to heavy for him to carry for any distance now. There are more than one option to address this physical limitation. Clyde, I genuinely offer to carry your 60 lb. pound equipment to any place in the world that you need in exchange for working with you. This isn’t a silly joke, but a genuine offer. It is amazing that you have been able to do the things that you have in your 70’s. Let us help you.
- Another option to address the physical limitation is to use a lighter 8×10 camera. For example, I use a custom made Ritter 8×10 that weighs in less than 6 lbs. and my Chamonix is less than 8 lbs. I only use two lenses and they weigh ounces, not pounds. Add a couple film holders loaded with sheet film and a meter and loupe and I have a fully functioning large format 8×10 setup that likely weighs less than most modern DSLR systems. Clyde’s digital setup (Sony A7R, Cambo ACTUS, and lenses such as the Canon TS-E 17mm and any of the medium format RZ glass) surely weighs more than my 8×10 kits.
- Another option is to use a smaller 4×5 field camera. This would not hinder Clyde’s ability to continue to create very large analog darkroom prints. I can create 60 inch (5 foot) darkroom prints in my personal darkroom from 4×5 negatives. I could actually print larger, but based on my development system and working alone, this is as big as I can go at this time. My 4×5 field camera weighs less than 3.5 lbs.
- Clyde could follow in the footprints of Ansel. Use a medium format film camera and start a new chapter with the unique variables offered via this format.
- Yet another option is to simply focus on printing his lifetime of negatives and bring to life a catalog of work that has to be substantial.
If you are one of the very few that have stuck with this article this far, you have almost made it to the end. Congratulations and know that you are a rare breed in modern times because you didn’t just skim the first two sentences. In case anyone decides to comment about the differences or superiority of digital vs. film, just don’t, it isn’t relevant and I will simply ignore it. Any of the arguments that are pro digital such as “it’s better” or “it’s faster and time is money” simply don’t apply to Clyde because he is a proven commodity in the art world and he doesn’t need to work faster. For those that want to go down the path of “better”, just visit a gallery and look at any of Clyde’s optical darkroom prints in person. I think this would suffice to keep you from making such foolish comments like this in the future.
In summary, I hope Clyde reads this article and considers my comments and suggestions. If you are listening Clyde, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 314-972-4900 so that I can help you continue working in the same way you have for many decades. You are my hero and a legend to many. I will be waiting for your call.
Please send me your comments and thoughts about this article.
This article first appeared on my analog film photography blog at www.blackandwhitefineart.net – © Tim Layton – All Rights Reserved