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).

I’m not sure what I think of the idea that the Americans were disconnected from the “countryside” in the nineteenth century. The nation was rural for most of the century; the major growth spurt for cities occurred relatively late (post Civil War, c. 1865) so it seems odd to present such a bourgeois version of the “typical” experience of the wilderness—Henry Hamilton Bennett was more plebian than aristocratic. Traveling into the “wild countryside” couldn’t have been that unusual because the majority of the country (read: the West) was “wild” well into the 1880s. I have a lot of difficulty with the idea that Bennett was “a generation behind the frontier” when Wisconsin was only granted statehood in 1848. A “generation” in ten years? Minnesota only became a state in 1858, the year after Bennett moved into the Dells (then called Kilbourn City). Kilbourn City was not a “vacation town” until long after Bennett started promoting it as one.

Bennett did much more than make and remake the same picture. He traveled extensively between Chicago and Duluth, MN., making whatever salable photographs he could. In the matter of human reference— well, it is true that Bennett frequently included figures in his landscapes. I have not done a statistical survey, but the many of the stereocards I have from Bennett have figures nearly hidden (not superior in any sense) in the dense brush which give the views there own sense of scale. The “fairy-story” landscape was largely constructed through prose and by the odd little stories printed on the cards, rather than through any sort of static or “canned” composition. Bennett’s pictures often have the sort of “keyhole” quality displayed above, but it’s hard to say how much of that was the landscape itself and how much was the “friendly” eye of Bennett. It’s amazing how often I run into that adjective attached to him. Szarkowski seems to set a sort of “party-line” for evaluations of Bennett that not many investigators deviate from.