Florida photographer explores surrealist artist Dali’s roots

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. | Photographer Clyde Butcher is known for his sweeping, evocative black-and-white photos of Florida’s Everglades. But when he first arrived in the Sunshine State almost 40 years ago, he looked around and couldn’t find anything to photograph.

“Flat. No mountains. No waterfalls. Boring. I didn’t do anything for almost the first two years,” he said.

Butcher, who had previously lived in California and photographed landscapes there, wasn’t impressed by Florida as a creative subject. But in 1982, he made a trip to St. Petersburg and visited the Salvador Dali museum, where a collection of the Spanish artist’s work was on display.

“He inspired me,” Butcher said with a grin, adding that Dali’s work led him to do some “creative, outer-space type stuff.”

Not long after that, Butcher picked up his camera and began shooting photos of Florida’s cypress stands, of swamps and secluded beaches.

Butcher’s latest work is an homage to the surrealist master. It brings Butcher’s career in Florida full circle.

The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg commissioned Butcher to travel to Spain to capture Cadaques, Portlligat, Figueres and Cap de Creus — areas where Dali spent his early years, and where he died. The result is the exhibit “Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali’s Spain,” and it’s a stark, moody show of the rugged, rocky landscapes of Spain’s Costa Brava.

In the show’s 41 photographs, viewers can see what inspired Dali — no small feat given his fantastical and often outrageous artistic imagination. Butcher’s photos are almost a starting point for Dali’s paintings across the hall in the museum. You can see how certain rocks perched on cliffs look like the skulls that Dali painted, for example, and how light and shadows influenced Dali’s visions.

Butcher, who has been called the Ansel Adams of the Everglades because of his large-scale, sharp monochromatic landscape images, started his photography career in California. Going to Spain, he said, reminded him of California.

“It was like I was back in Monterey, Point Lobos. It felt like home. We lived in Newport Beach on a sailboat,” said Butcher, during a media tour of the exhibit.

His images from Spain are similar in scale to his Florida works, and he draws parallels between his photos and Dali’s paintings.

“I’m probably quite similar actually. My pictures are created so you can walk into them. He created these experiences with his paintings, that they were very similar. That inspired me to do that weird stuff. It got me to look at nature in a different way.”

One of the first photos a visitor sees in the new exhibit is a wide picture of an inlet in Cadaques, with a small, lone wooden sailboat on the beach.

“I think I was there every day, about four and five times, back and forth, to the same spot. A lot of times you find a nice spot, but the light’s not right, the sky’s not right,” he said.

That obsession of light and sky, of shadows and clouds, consumed Butcher while he was in Spain.

“One day, it was just blue sky. Blahhhh,” he said. “The next day we woke up and it was nice and storming, and I said, it’s a good time to go,” he said.

In many of his Florida photos, Butcher uses a large-format view camera, in which the lens forms an inverted image on a ground glass screen directly at the plane of the film. In Spain, he went digital, using a Sony camera.

Butcher’s assignment in Spain happened prior to his March 2017 stroke. He’s now almost fully recovered and is back to doing events.

If You Go…

CLYDE BUTCHER: VISIONS OF DALI’S SPAIN: At the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, through Nov. 25, http://thedali.org/exhibit/clyde-butcher-visions-dalis-spain/. Butcher will attend events at the museum and will sign books about the exhibit on June 30, Sept. 29 and Nov. 3.

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