Huck Finn had nothing on Butch Lombardi. He was introduced to Belcher Cove and the Palmer River by age two or three. Dip netting for blue shell crabs with his dad when he got home from work, piling into a boat with four or five other neighborhood kids and a Labrador Retriever named Streaky, gone all afternoon up the Palmer in a skiff, no adults, no life jackets, no cell phones. This was his Warren childhood.
“Because we were left to our own devices we were free to explore and learn to experience the environment and marshes that surround us as a town,” says Butch. “You learned about the rhythm of the tides, the changes in seasons and how it affects everything from the wildlife to the plant life. You learned what kind of ducks were out there, geese, shorebirds and hawks. It was an education that was free but priceless.”
Butch, 68, is of Warren, in Warren, for Warren. His photography of the beauty that surrounds the smallest town in the smallest county in America has made him a local icon. His calendar of East Bay nature – birds, lights, marshes, fauna – sells out annually before he can even print them.
A member of the first graduating class at CCRI in 1966 (they celebrate their 50th year this year) he was invited to exhibit pieces in an anniversary show at the college’s museum, even though he didn’t have a fine art degree (It wasn’t offered the first few years).
Eligible for the draft the day after graduating CCRI, he joined Co. D of the 118 Combat Engineers of the National Guard at the Warren Armory, mere blocks from his Market Street home. After serving, he spent 31 years with what was once called The Telephone Company on Everett Street, again, three minutes from his home.
His first hobby wasn’t photography. An avid athlete, he learned the game of golf weeks after graduating high school. Within three years of picking up a club, he was breaking 80. He went on to win championships in six decades – the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s.), then experienced what he called his greatest honor, induction into the Warren Athletic Hall of Fame. He dabbled amateurishly with photography in the fall of 1968, taking photos at Watkins Glen, NY at the US Formula 1 Grand Prix. One of his photos took the attention of an artist who encouraged him. Butch began shooting photos of birds with a zoom lens.
In the summer of 1986, a visit to Nantucket changed how he viewed Warren forever. “Nantucket was a kind of epiphany for me. Nantucket has retained its Colonial heritage in its buildings and environment better than any place in New England. When I returned to Warren I realized that Warren had a lot of ‘Nantucket’ in it,” he says. “It was there, you just had to look for it.”
When his sister Judy, also a photographer, started sending photos she took as greeting cards in 2000, it lit a fire. Now retired, he started to shoot with all of the cameras he had used for four decades, but soon gave in to digital.
“I knew photography was an integral part of my existence when I started to get up in the morning and, having the choice to play golf or go out and shoot, I’d grab the camera instead of the golf clubs,” he laughs.
His work is often featured on the Yankee magazine website. In 2012, he won Yankee’s Winter Photography Contest with a picture of a female cardinal in a snowstorm that he took in his mother’s backyard on Napoleon Street. Soon, his work was featured by the Audubon Society.
He also shares his work at no charge with Save The Bay, and many of the local conservation agencies. “As long as my work is used to promote the protection of wildlife, preserve habitats, etc. I will share it free of charge. I feel strongly about conservation and that has a higher purpose than awards or sales,” adds Butch.
All this on the Huck Finn river that he still traverses in his skiff. “People have no clue of how wonderful the Palmer River is. There is such a diverse array of wildlife that inhabits the narrow strip of woods and marsh that border the Palmer. I see deer, coyote, mink, bald eagles, Peregrine falcons, osprey, great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets, wood ducks, green-wing teal... the list is endless.
He took his most surprising photo there one day in September. Chasing egrets, the image of an American white pelican, native to the Gulf Coast, filled his viewfinder, only one of nine ever documented in RI since they started keeping records more than 100 years ago.
And the best picture? “The best picture I take will be tomorrow – always. Once I figured I’ve taken my best picture it will be time to quit,” he says. “I have never wanted to live anywhere else. There is a certain degree of comfort living in one place for your entire life. I don’t think I live in Warren. I think Warren lives in me.”