by Jennifer Smith, PortalWisconsin.org
To call H.H. Bennett (1843-1908) "just" a photographer is to ignore the many other facets of his career. He was not only one of the major landscape photographers of the 19th century, but also an inventor, entrepreneur and tourism promoter. Bennett made much of his own equipment and pursued shrewd ways to market his pictures and the stunning places they captured. In essence, he kicked off the boom in Wisconsin Dells tourism that continues to this day.
Bennett set up his studio in the Dells, then called Kilbourn City, in 1865. He was a proud Civil War veteran who had expected to make his living as a carpenter, but an injured hand disrupted this plan. Although he took portraits in his studio, his real love was landscape photography. Bennett's first wife, Frankie, frequently ran the portrait studio to allow him time for landscape work. It also seems that nature photography suited his temperament better than portraiture; Bennett once remarked sardonically, "It is easier to pose nature and less trouble to please."
Bennett's favorite subjects were the stunning rock formations along the Wisconsin River created by melting glaciers. He played up their mystery and majestic scale by including human subjects who often appear dwarfed by their surroundings.
Many of these breathtaking vistas were popularized in images on stereoscopic cards, a common item in Bennett's day. The cards presented two images that took advantage of the slightly different views seen by each eye. The two separate images combine in the mind's eye to create a three-dimensional-looking whole.
Stereoscopes to view these cards were found in many Victorian homes, allowing armchair travelers to "visit" new places. Like travel shows on TV today, stereo cards helped promote tourist destinations, and Bennett was a master of these images. He sold them in his shop and through agents and catalogs.
Landscapes were not Bennett's only interest, however. He took a number of city scenes (including Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul) and portraits of the area's Ho-Chunk people. The photographer also tried to learn a bit of the Ho-Chunk language, jotting down phonetic spellings of words and phrases in his notebook.
Today, visitors can learn about H.H. Bennett and see the very place where he worked at the H.H. Bennett Studio & History Center, which opened as the Wisconsin Historical Society's ninth historic site in summer 2000. Bennett's studio, which had been operated continuously by the Bennett family since its inception, was given to the Historical Society by Bennett's granddaughter and her husband in 1998. The couple also donated their collection of Bennett's glass-plate negatives.
The studio is now restored to its appearance in 1908, the year of Bennett's death. One can see his darkroom, the workroom where he manufactured stereo cards by the thousands, and the "operating room" where portraits were shot. One can also peer into the sales room where the Bennett family sold photographs, stereo cards, souvenirs and Native American crafts. In later years, Bennett had to rely increasingly on non-photo sales as photography became more accessible to the general public. Like travelers today, people wanted to take their own pictures as mementos of their journeys.
The historic studio is connected to a history center with state-of-the-art exhibits and a museum shop. Vintage photo equipment, some of it Bennett's own, is on display. His inventive streak pushed him to create the best tools for capturing the effects he desired.
Computer stations that recreate the effects of stereoscopic cards are one of the History Center highlights. Visitors look at computer screens while wearing special glasses. Liquid crystal lenses make the 3-D images appear startlingly clear and convincing. Modern-day visitors can get a feel for the "special effects" that thrilled Victorians in an era long before 3-D movies. Visitors can also view cards in traditional stereoscopes.
The History Center experience is more than just a visual one, though. Sound throughout the exhibits recreates the atmosphere of the late 19th and early 20th century through period songs and nature sounds, recalling a time when vacationers were more likely to spend two weeks in the Wisconsin Dells rather than the long weekends many people prefer today.
The H.H. Bennett Studio & History Center is a fascinating place to reconnect with Wisconsin's past and learn about a major Wisconsin photographer. Visitors can see how the Wisconsin Dells looked many decades ago. In fact, some of the iconic places captured by Bennett can no longer be seen; they've been submerged due to the construction of a dam. But the natural beauty of region still has its pull, and Bennett's photographs are a wonderful way to appreciate it.