Photographer chronicles Mount Rushmore for 80 years

Published: Jun. 30, 2016 at 7:07 PM CDT
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He's seen it all--the very beginning of the famous carving to the completion and the dedication of the Shrine of Democracy.

Rapid City's Bill Groethe, 92, has recorded eight decades of Mount Rushmore through the lens of his film cameras.

"My first interest was when Roosevelt came here," explains Groethe. "Everybody was interested. The whole area, 100 miles away or more came. There were 12,000 people at that little deal which was really remarkable with roads the way they were and people came from all over."

That was 1936. As an apprentice at Bell Studio at the age of 12, Bill Groethe carried a film bag for the presidential visit to record progress.

"By the next year in 1937 I had a new folding Kodak that I bought. So I took pictures of the '37 dedication," says Groethe.

Groethe chronicled the carving of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. He knew sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln. He was there when work stopped because of Borglum's death in 1941 and the World War. And Groethe recorded the formal dedication 50 years later with President George H. Bush in 1991.

"We recorded history. Nobody hired us. They still don't even today. When I covered 50th anniversary 25 years ago, I spent $5,000. My son-in-law and I shot 1,500 images from eight different cameras. We had every camera size backed up. Film of that!" says Groethe.

Film has been the key to Groethe's success and the reason his images still exist. "Film is still the keeper, if it's processed right."

Groethe still uses his three sizes of film camera. He develops his work the old-fashioned way with chemicals in a dark room. With a negative he demonstrates how he projects and enlarges an image.

It's the same process that was used to make the famous 18 by 44 foot long picture at Mt. Rushmore from Groethe's negative. It was made from seven inch film. 24 sections were blown up, pieced together and it's still sharp. Groethe says it's a disappearing art form.

He's been all over the mountain and knows the best vantage point. Groethe says the key to his pictures is the time of day. "The art of Mt. Rushmore is in the placement of the heads to get as close as you could to the acknowledged formal portrait lighting that throws the shadow from the nose to the corner of the mouth."

Bill Groethe still works four days a week. He has more work than he can handle. There's more demand than ever for his photography. His negatives are priceless.

"The great majority of my work will stay with my family. My son is an excellent printer. He's an engineer but grew up in our business. My daughter is an extremely good printer and knows the business. But I don't expect to leave you very soon," laughs the master photographer.

Groethe spends two days a week at Rushmore all summer talking to tourists, selling his work and giving out his famous postcards.