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Photographer Documents History in the West

  • Charles Ray

Bill Groethe, 84, may rank among the most important living photographers of the American west. In the 1930's and early 40's Groethe worked as an apprentice photographer, documenting the carving of four presidential faces on Mt Rushmore. His photographs of the Native American survivors of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn and the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre are now on permanent display at the Smithsonian. Charles Michael Ray spent some time in Groethe's studio and brought back this profile.

A good way to get Bill Groethe riled up is to ask him about the new age of digital photography. "That is destroying my profession, frankly," he says, "and I don't like it. I've been shooting pictures and been in this thing for over 70 years, and I'm still able to work every day because I enjoy it."

Grothe runs First Photo Shop in Rapid City, South Dakota, where he develops both digital and film images. But Groethe comes from the old school, back when the art of photography was about having a limited amount of film and maybe only one chance to get it right... and, he insists, back then, photos could weather the test of time. He says over the years he's found that the digital images printed on a home computer just don't stand up to good old-fashioned film.

Visiting Bill Groethe's studio is kind of like taking a tour through the history of this part of the country. There are several dozen photographs he took of the carving of Rushmore, including one with the sculptor Gutzon Borglum alongside a group of men who are dangling precariously over one of the faces. "There's Borglum standing on that rock in his street clothes smoking a cigarette and there are 9 workers hanging on the side of the mountain. Isn't that something?" he says, shaking his head in wonder. "Bert Bell took that picture in 1935, with an 8X10 camera, big, no motor drive, no digital … but 1935." As a teenager, Groethe helped to capture the images of the carving of Mt Rushmore while working for local photographer Bert Bell.

But Groethe may be best known for a different set of faces... a group picture he took on a late summer day in 1948. Groethe attended one of the last reunions of the survivors of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. It was the most famous action of the Indian Wars. The nine tribal elders that gathered for the event included prominent Native American leaders such as Black Elk, Dewey Beard, Iron Hawk, and Little Soldier.

"They're pretty regal faces, I didn't do much posing," he recalls. "I said, I want you to look at the sun. So I did [put] some thought [into how they should stand] because I only had one sheet of 5X7 film for each of those."

Groethe captured the Lakota Leader Black Elk in front of his rainbow-colored tipi, and took several shots of the gathering. "I was running out of film and I thought, 'Well, that's over with' but then they decided to house the seven younger ones at the Sylvan Lake Hotel and I thought 'Well, I'll just follow them up there.'" He went into the kitchen and got an apple crate to pose them on. "They were posed on the south lawn of the Sylvan Lake Hotel. The younger ones, they were only 85 on up," he says with a laugh. "But the two older ones, Black Elk and Iron Hawk, stayed in Black Elk's tipi."

The photographer says he never thought that the images he was taking that summer day would one day end up in the Smithsonian Institution. But he remembers he did think about making them good photographs, "because these are great faces, not only photographically but they are very important people and very important history, and you know I'm a very serious person about history."

While Groethe has a lot of history in his studio - he is still working today - one of his long-standing projects focuses on the natural world. He is trying to capture all of the 12 Lakota Moons, each named for a different month... such as April's Red Grass Appearing moon, and the Falling Leaves moon of November. "The names come from the book Black Elk Speaks," he explains. "They're named by the Indians. [The photos are shot] in historic locations and they have to fit that criteria. And there are no filters or any enhancement."

Among the images he's caught on film is a shot of the moon over the South Dakota Badlands, another of a buffalo calf in the moonlight on the prairie, and one of the moon over Bear Butte, a mountain sacred to the Native Americans.

Gorethe says there is a two-minute window for each full moon when the shot will be just right. After that, it's over. The moons are hard to capture; he has gotten only nine successful images in 18 years, including the August moon of Black Cherries and the December moon of Popping Trees. But he has yet to capture the moons of March, April, May and July. If Mother Nature cooperates, Groethe hopes to make his goal of shooting the last four Lakota moons. They will be the perfect culmination of his life's work.