Linda Butler, Photographer


Many Clevelanders first became acquainted with Linda Butler’s precise, yet lyrical eye when the Gund Foundation’s 1994 annual report, illustrated with her elegant photographs of local arts institutions, was released to much acclaim. Butler, then a relative newcomer to the area, had already exhibited nationally and published two extraordinary bodies of work establishing her distinctive personal style. Her first book, Inner Light: The Shaker Legacy (Knopf, 1985), while not focusing on Cleveland’s famous Shaker community—most of its selenium-toned pictures were shot in Kentucky near Pleasant Hill, where Butler then resided, or in New England—resonates with the simplicity and perfection equally associated with the Shaker heritage of our region.

In choosing the artifacts of Shaker life as a subject, Butler was able to hone her eye for inherently abstract patternization. Whether shooting a symmetrical long view through a doorway, or zeroing in for an extreme tilted closeup la Paul Strand, Butler captured the essence of the Shakers’ spirit: simplicity encapsulating harmonious perfection. Her ability to pinpoint the vision of a locality reached another stage of maturity in her next two endeavors, Rural Japan: Radiance of the Ordinary (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) and Italy in the Shadow of Time (Rizzoli, 1998), for which Butler also wrote an accompanying essay.

Mostly self-taught as a photographer, Butler, who was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, and went to Antioch College and the University of Michigan, reacted strongly to what she learned in a workshop led by famed photographer of Western vistas Ansel Adams. Many of her Asian views—rooftops in a seacoast village, vistas of melting snow in Yamagata—recall Adams; however, in Rural Japan: Radiance of the Ordinary, Butler counterbalances such long exposures with genre scenes, as well as exquisitely nuanced, cropped views of seemingly mundane subjects like antique money and drying squid. The play of shadows is once again critical to her compositions, now taken with a 4 x 5 view camera. That she came to know this area and its inhabitants intimately is evident in every image. “Out of nothingness,” she says, quoting ancient folklore, “something is born”; her Japanese works echo the Shaker pictures in proving this aphorism.

When she went to Italy, Linda Butler found another kind of stunning beauty. Many of the pictures in her 1998 book, Italy in the Shadow of Time, appear to glow from within, their golden sepia tonality enhanced by a chemical wash during development. Creating the images for this series allowed Butler to investigate that country’s layering of civilizations, its literal as well as figurative reflections and shadows, and the seemingly timeless integration of present and past. Although no humans are actually seen in the Italian pictures, the traces of humanity are present in each one. Highly sensual in their simplicity, Butler’s latest works project a more mysterious spirituality. She richly deserves her international acclaim.

—Ellen G. Landau

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •