IT is all very well to dream magnificent dreams, to conceive great projects surpassing all that has ever been done, or even attempted, and to go so far as to reduce to words and sketches the outline of the work. It is fine to have the genius to imagine a monumental work, noble in proportion and beautiful in detail, and to be able to realize one's dreams in clay so that others may catch some hint of the splendor of the ideal. But that ability does not constitute mastery. When the dreamer is confronted with reality as ruthless as Stone Mountain granite, all too often we witness Herbert Spencer's tragedy, "the murder of a beautiful Theory by a gang of brutal Facts."
Gutzon Borglum came near witnessing that tragedy before a chisel had ever scratched the surface of Stone Mountain. He had dreamed his great dream. He could see his sculptured figures already streaming down across the surface of the cliff. He had reduced his project to understandable terms and had inspired others with the beauty of it. He had made a model in clay of the central group and knew just how each of the important figures should stand. But the brutal fact was that his design was here and Stone Mountain was there, and no human being knew how to transfer the design to the mountain.
Here was where his audacious scheme of treating the mountain as a hatful of clay, broke down. That was excellent in the studio, when he was studying his composition, but it wouldn't go out in the open air. Momentarily, he was under the delusion that it would. He actually tried to go out and draw lines on the mountain as he might draw lines on a block of marble from which he intended to have a figure cut. By laying a cable along the top and dropping other cables vertically at intervals of fifty feet, he did succeed in dividing the cliff into panels. He fastened himself into harness and was lowered over the face of the cliff with a bucket of white lead and a diagram cut into squares like an ordnance map. Over the gulf he swung, swaying in the wind, and, when he could, dabbing at the rock with his paint-brush; but when he was drawn up again, he couldn't see his work! On that vast area his little lines made no more impression than a bright new pin would make, if it were dropped into a hay-field. His design called for a panel nearly two hundred feeb high by thirteen hundred feet long. That is an area of approximately seven acres. He had been trying to draw a picture on seven acres of stone.
Along that line the mountain had won, without a doubt. It took no great amount of battering against the rock wall, as the wind swung him back and forth, to drive into his mind the realization that he would be literally battered to pulp before the design was one-tenth transferred. It couldn't be done that way. He withdrew awhile, to consider.
In the meantime, he was being bombarded with advice from all quarters. Much of it was irrelevant, but some of it was not. Eminent men in his own profession, the ablest sculptors in America, to whose words any artist must give weight, begged him to listen to reason.
"You have already made a reputation," they said. "The Mare, of Diomedes are in the Metropolitan Museum. The head of Lincoln is in the capitol. You are succeeding both with ideal figures and with portraits. Why spoil it all with an insane project that cannot succeed in anything but in making you the laughing-stock of the world?"
There was no doubt about the honesty of that advice. It came from honest men who were also sincere and devoted friends. But Borglum shook his head, not merely in negation, but as shaking off the very suggestion that his enterprise be abandoned. Nothing entered into consideration with him any longer--nothing except the problem of how that design was to be transferred.
A memory of his youth came to his assistance. Years before he had lived in a California town where the streets were lighted by arcs suspended from tremendously tall poles. Borglum remembered walking down the shady streets of that town and seeing cast upon the sidewalk shadows of leaves, leaves of ordinary size, maples perhaps, but casting shadows two feet across. Why could he not, employing a great light at the foot of the mountain, cast a shadow of his design upon the face of the cliff? Then he could suspend workmen with paint-pots from the top, and they could paint the outlines of the shadows on the stone. Why could he not attack the problem from that angle?
The Eastman Kodak people told him why. The makers of lenses and optical instruments told him why. The moving-picture people told him why. The Westinghouse Electric company told him why. Never was greater unanimity of opinion in condemnation of a scheme. As one man, they told him that with artificial light you can cast a shadow with a sharp edge a maximum distance of two hundred and seventy feet. At a greater distance, the outline becomes blurred. But to cast a beam of light on the face of that cliff at half-way up its height, meant to cast it vertically four hundred and thirty-four feet, and of course he couldn't shoot it straight up. His lamp would necessarily have to stand back a little from the base of the cliff, so that at the very best his ray would have to be about seven hundred feet long, which was nearly three times as far as it was considered possible, with the instruments in use, to project a shadow with a sharp edge. The thing just couldn't be done.
Unfortunately, though, it had to be done, for that was the only way to get that design on the cliff. There followed some of the most soul-racking months that Borglum ever knew. He consulted every one he could think of who knew anything about lenses, or spotlights, or moving-pictures, or electric lamps. Every one was courteous, every one was interested, but every one agreed that the thing couldn't be done. The lamp manufacturers raised another objection. To get the effect he required, they said, that is, a floodlight so powerful that it would illuminate an area of an acre at a distance of seven hundred feet, was feasible, but to make a stereopticon of that size was out of the question, because if you made your arc large enough to cast so much light, the heat would be so intense that your lenses would crack as fast as you put them in. Nevertheless, they were interested. They sent their experts to study the question. They put some of their best men on the job. They overcame one difficulty after another. At the end of months of experimentation they evolved a lamp that would do the business. It was not very large. It looked much like an ordinary moving-picture projection machine, but so complicated was the construction that it cost the company two thousand two hundred dollars to build it. By that time, though, they were thoroughly aroused. They knew the purpose to which the lamp was to be put, and when it had been set up and tried successfully, they dumbfounded Borglum by presenting it to him with their compliments.
Other big concerns were equally handsome in their treatment of the harassed artist. Borglum transferred the scene of operations from Georgia to his home at Stamford, Connecticut, and sent for Tucker. The latter hung a huge canvas square between two telegraph poles seven hundred feet from Borglum's house, and every night the two toiled with their lights and lenses, trying to get a sharp shadow outlined on the screen. They found that by using a second lens in the stereopticon, they could greatly increase the distance that a shadow could be cast. So they experimented, using a gob of modeling clay to hold the second lens in position, and moving it slowly back and forth. They had made a slide by pasting two tiny strips of black paper in the form of an "X." Night after night they strove to cast that Xon the screen, but to no avail. It simply wouldn't focus. They could get a shadow on the screen, but that was all. Finally one night they discovered a sharp streak of light on the screen, which was otherwise in shadow. This was inexplicable, for there was nothing of that sort on the slide. They took it out and examined it to penetrate the mystery, and a particularly rigid inspection revealed the cause. In cutting out the strips of black paper, some one had let the shears slip, ever so slightly, and there was a sliver of paper almost cut off along the edge of one of the strips. The cut was so slight that it had not been noticed when the paper was pasted on the slide, yet through that hairlike opening had slipped the ray that struck a streak of light clear across a screen twenty-eight by thirty feet. Then they realized the situation. The enlargement of the X was so enormous that the shadow cast by the strips of paper where they crossed had actually blotted out that gigantic screen.
In tremendous, but restrained excitement, they marked carefully the position of the slide when it cast the streak of light, then took another slide painted over with black. Borglum, with a pin point, scratched through the black a head, not as large as a split pea, and inserted the slide. In lines of blazing light the head stood out on the dark screen, covering its huge surface. It was as clear and distinct as if it had been cut there with a keen knife. The problem of casting a sharp-edged shadow seven hundred feet had been solved.
This part of the story is soon told, but it took months of incessant labor to work it out, and even at that, the business was not yet done. It was proved that geometrical designs could be cast for that great distance, but a photograph was a different matter. Borglum began to experiment with photographs of his model, and the thing didn't work. It was winter, and the ground was covered with snow. A great hill rose behind the telegraph-poles that held the screen, and the bare branches of the trees on the hillside made a fretwork against the white ground. The sculptor had no eyes for this. He was concentrating on that screen, on which his picture would not focus, but his small daughter, standing by his side one night, was fascinated by the trees. Suddenly she began shouting at her father.
"Oh, Daddy, Daddy!" she cried. "Look at the soldiers, coming through the woods!"
Like the Psalmist, Borglum lifted up his eyes unto the hills, and thence came his help, for down that snow-covered slope, a perfect screen, came marching the mighty procession of Lee and his men. The tremendous beam had shot clear through the screen and thrown a perfect picture of the Confederate memorial on that Connecticut hill, one thousand five hundred feet away! Thereafter it was simply a matter of adjusting the second lens to bring the picture into sharp focus on the screen itself.
So what all the experts had declared impossible was accomplished again. A shadow picture had been cast farther than a picture had ever been cast before. A stereopticon able to illuminate an acre at seven hundred feet had been so constructed that its heat would not crack a lens. The problem of transferring the design to the mountain seemed to be solved.
But in reality, it was not solved yet. There remained the problem of distortion. Naturally, the shadow thrown on the cliff had to bear precisely the relative proportions of the picture on the slide, or it would be worthless for the purpose of transferring the design. A projecting machine set upon the ground had to be tilted up, and such slant as there was to the mountain was all backward. Therefore, the ray of light struck the surface of the rock at an acute angle, with the result that the top of the picture, which meant the heads of the men, would be immensely and grotesquely distorted.
Again the experts shook their heads. They could furnish lenses guaranteed to correct distortion pro vided the ray struck the screen at right angles, but that was as far as they could go. No such problem as correcting the distortion of a picture projected at an acute angle ever had been presented. There were no rules covering such procedure, no precedent to go by. They suggested raising the light to a height that would permit projection at right angles. But that meant building a tower five-hundred feet high, and Borglum had no funds for such a scheme, even had it recommended itself to him.
So once more he and Tucker set out into the unknown, aided in this instance by a Stamford photographer named D'Emery. All D'Emery's technical skill and all the resources of his studio, he placed at the disposal of these strange pioneers, resolved to do what had never been done, in order to meet a difficulty that had never arisen before. They gave weeks of work and worry to this problem. They tried every device that their imaginations could suggest. Borglum realized that if he could swing the mountain with its base as an axis through a wide enough arc, eventually the face of the cliff would meet his ray of light at right angles. He could not tilt the mountain, but what was to prevent his tilting his model and photographing it at the necessary angle? He tried it. But in the resulting photograph, the planes were all disarranged. He had moved a rough surface, and the whole composition was thrown out of order. Then he took a photograph of the model standing straight, thereby securing a flat surface, which he tilted and photographed. Out of this second photograph he made a slide, and it almost worked, but not quite.
His resources were exhausted. His inventive genius flagged. Almost touching the goal, it seemed for a time that he could go no further, for flog his exhausted brain as he would, he could gain no further hint of an idea. Then, somehow, when he was least expecting it, as easily and naturally as day breaks, the right notion came to him. Why do all this photographing of tilted models and tilted photographs of models? Why not simply insert an ordinary slide and tilt the slide-holder, letting the beam of light correct itself as it passed through? After all these weeks of worry and fatigue, he had solved the whole problem with the touch of one finger!