Man sits on a canoe by the lakeside

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Visual Historian Who Made Wisconsin Dells Famous

More than a photographer, Henry Hamilton Bennett (1843-1908) was an inventive visual historian. His pioneering use of technology, combined with exquisite composition skills, created an enduring legacy for Wisconsin Dells. His stereoscopic views of the dells of the Wisconsin River attracted visitors from across the country, and truly made him the man who made Wisconsin Dells famous.

Pioneering, Inventive Photojournalist

H.H. Bennett embarked on his life as a photographer after an injury sustained in the Civil War permanently crippled his right hand, preventing him from continuing as a carpenter. He did use his carpentry skills, however, as he began his career as a photographer.

Purchasing a tintype studio in Wisconsin Dells (then Kilbourn City), he took his first stereographic landscape photographs of the rugged Wisconsin River dells in 1868. Often constructing all aspects of the camera except for the lenses, he ventured out into the wooded and rocky landscape of the Dells and captured the area on film. He was one of the first photojournalists, using photographs to tell a story.

Celebrated 19th-Century Landscape Photographer

H.H. Bennett is viewed as one of the best landscape photographers of the 19th century. While other photographers clung to the relative safety of working within their studios, Bennett developed a passion for landscape photography in the field because, in his words, “It is easier to pose nature and less trouble to please.” He conformed to a common view of that time, which saw nature as a playground to be enjoyed, not feared.

The effort to make a photographic image was far different than from that of today. Bennett and his contemporaries had to manufacture film on the site in a darkroom tent he took with him on all his travels, and then develop the chemical wet plates almost immediately following exposure in the camera.

H.H. Bennett came to know the dells area quite well, and was not satisfied to take just any view of an area he wanted to photograph. He took his time and persisted until he got exactly what he wanted. He is known to venture into hard to reach natural areas on occasion. If the light was bad or the angle wrong, he may return several times to the same place until he could get an image just as he envisioned.

As a result of his attention to detail, Bennett’s H.H. Bennett’s photography has been displayed in some of the most prestigious museums in the world and is prized by collectors.Bennett’s synthesis of the artistic aspects of photography, amazing technological innovations which were ahead of many contemporaries of the day, and his marketing and sales techniques were all brought together putting his studio on the forefront of the photographic art.


The Oldest Operating Business in Wisconsin Dells

Henry Hamilton Bennett opened his first studio in 1865. It has the distinction of being the oldest known operating business in Wisconsin Dells. In 1875 he moved into the current studio he (and his friend and mentor, William Metcalf) designed on Broadway. It has been in continuous operation ever since and is believed to be the oldest still operating photography studio in the United States. Bennett’s family ran the business until 1998 when they donated the property to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Photography historians consider Bennett one of the best landscape photographers of the 19th century, considered the “Golden Age of Landscape Photography.” Today the studio continues to house many of Bennett’s original photographs, glass plate negatives, photography inventions, cameras and equipment.

The Ho-Chunk People

H.H. Bennett was the first to photograph the Ho-Chunk people, and his ongoing relationship with the Ho-Chunk people helped the tribal nation record its history and heritage in Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk people, previously referred to as Winnebago, traveled and lived extensively along the Fox, Mississippi, and Wisconsin Rivers. Bennett’s photography captured the native surroundings along the Dells of the Wisconsin River during the 19th century. Bennett established a working and lasting relationship with the Ho-Chunk, evident in his photographs and journals. The Ho-Chunk Nation uses many of Bennett’s images today.

Historic H.H. Bennett Photographs

The historic photography of H.H. Bennett captures the spirit of late 19th-century Wisconsin as recorded by the cameras of one of photography’s true pioneers. Bennett captured the heart and soul of areas he photographed, revealing scenic landscapes, bustling urban centers, and people discovering a natural playground. Bennett’s images moved hundreds of thousands of Americans to visit the Wisconsin Dells. His works have been displayed worldwide including The New York Museum of Modern Art, The Smithsonian Institution, and the Center for Creative Photography.
Ten of the most popular historic Bennett photographs are shown below. Click on any image below to learn more and view a larger version.