A Generation Behind
H.H. Bennett, Canoeists in Boat Cave, Wisconsin Dells (c. 1890-95).
The philosophical values of wild landscape had in fact only recently, and tentatively, been discovered. The picnic of the eighteenth century had been an intellectual amusement of the aristocracy—a symbolic paying of homage to the supposed virtues of Rousseau’s Noble Savage—and it was held on the manicured lawns of formal gardens. The Romantic era discovered a wilder landscape, and made it an appropriate background for the soliloquies of its poets, but its poets were by nature individualists escaping their fellows: the wilderness was of value only while they were alone there. The common man, who knew nature well as a constant and often cruel adversary, was not often captivated by here charm. Only after he gained the upper hand, after the site had become something a little less awesome and a little gentler, did he take is family into the wild countryside for Sunday luncheon. There, after cold chicken, he would carve his initials into the walls of a fantastic grotto.
This sweet, naïve, and sometimes vandalistic, awakening to the poetic uses of the land was recorded with great tenderness by Henry Hamilton Bennett. A contemporary of the frontier landscapists, Bennett worked a generation behind the frontier, in the vacation town of Wisconsin Dells. From 1865 through 1907 he made and remade, with variation and refinement, what was essentially the same picture. It showed a fairy-story landscape, rugged and wild in half-scale, with enchanted miniature mountains and cool dark caves; and in this landscape a human reference, most often a figure, neatly dressed, poised, superior to the site, but with friendly feelings towards it. It was a portrait of the American discovering an identity with the wild world.
John Szarkowski, Introduction. The Photographer and the American Landscape (1963).
H.H. Bennett, “Bouncing, an instantaneous view” St. Paul Winter Carnival, c. 1886-1888