Handmade Nation

From the trip to Milwaukee last Thursday/Friday

The weekend before last, I was reading about a benefit for a film called Handmade Nation. As a person with an interest in most things DIY, I made a mental note about it. It was a project conceived by an owner of a shop in Milwaukee called Paper Boat. Though the project is in progress, it dovetails with my current research obsessions in a profound way. The connections wouldn’t really be apparent to most people not inside my head.

My interest in Henry Hamilton Bennett and the Wisconsin Dells doesn’t have anything to do with the hype surrounding him as a “pioneer photographer.” It has to do with his copious records of the circumstances surrounding his photographic gallery. He was a small town artist, struggling to make a buck as technological and social circumstances changed at the turn of the century. He was only one of thousands. It’s hard to estimate how many artists struggled to profit from newly opened local markets during the settlement of the American West. We have often been, to a large extent, a handmade nation.

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The Battle

I am sorry to hear of your ill success with the 2 doz gel. plates. The plan of the battlefield should not be altered in the way you suggest—the gelatine line should be advanced, but the gelatine Colonel should be represented as not quite up in his tactics—when he has allayed his thirst and looked carefully over his book of tactics he will return to his faithful plates soldiers and the condition of things will be as per in No 2. — I have tried Cramer & Nordens 8×10 cut in two and find them good, free from defects and about 6 times quicker than wet. Yrs W.H. Metcalf

This excerpt of a letter from W.H. Metcalf to H.H. Bennett (c. 1879) just cracks me up. Who knew that photographic emulsions had strategies?

Outstanding in the field

I can’t stop thinking about this image, taken from half a stereoview by T.W. Ingersoll of St. Paul. I believe the man closest to the camera is H.H. Bennett, and the setting is Bennett’s beloved Wisconsin Dells. Adding figures to a stereoview is a standard practice to highlight the scale and to contribute to the illusion of depth.

The professional photographic community of the late nineteenth century seems to be loosely joined, and yet profoundly important. It was as if they used each other to measure themselves, as they competed for the scarce discretionary dollars available to consumers. They inevitably crossed, sharing some secrets while protecting others— conscious of the need for connection while careful to assert their independence from each other.

The littered path, constructed from timbers, is a common feature of most of the photographs of the canyons of the dells. The whole scene is constructed, not in a carefully thought out way, but rather as if they just threw things down in order to have a place to stand.

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).

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From Documents to Monuments

I had a long talk with my advisor yesterday, and I am sort of shocked with how well everything has been going. Although things have fallen to new levels of deadness on the blog, there has been a flurry of research and negotiations in the real world. The travels have been both “virtual” and “actual.”

I’ve become interested in doing research into the photographer Henry Hamilton Bennett—not because he is particularly outstanding or unique, but because there is a wealth of information available about the ordinary functioning of his studio between 1865-1908. Bennett was an enterprising businessman that managed to scratch out living by transforming the area that he worked into a “tourist” attraction. After his death, his studio continued after him in the hands of his second wife and his daughters— as a “brand” built upon Bennett’s self-made myth.

As near as I can figure out, there are two other researchers working with the Bennett archive materials. Both are Cultural Geography / American Studies people. Between them, they have produced at least four excellent articles and one dissertation chapter. Discussing this with my advisor, he says this is both a good and a bad thing—it confirms that the material is rich, but it also means that I couldn’t “own” Bennett. That’s fine with me, because it isn’t Bennett as a person that interests me—it is Bennett’s role as a center for imaging practices in the Wisconsin Dells. Both of the other researchers are “light” in the theory department and “heavy” in terms of historical narration. My interest is largely theoretical—Bennett’s photographic documents were instrumental in transforming the Wisconsin Dells into an odd sort of monument. I am not interested in emplotting Bennett into a cultural or technologically determined narrative; I am interested in how this transformation, intentional or unintentional, was managed and produced.

It dawned on me this week that my current research question—how are documents transformed into monuments?—is precisely the same question (appropriated from Foucault) that I spelled out in my application letter to the University of Minnesota. Travel and tourism have gradually encroached on my thinking, both because I have been traveling, and because photography has a provocative role in the promotion of traveling. The problem with restricting things primarily to “the impact of photography,” “the impact of halftone printing,” or “the impact of the railroad” is the implication that these factors have a self-important causal relation (photographic promotion created tourism) rather than an instrumental function (photographic promotion facilitated tourism).

But even as I write this I realize just how slippery the difference is between instrumentality and causality. Perhaps more reflection on Aristotle’s four causes is in order. While there has been no shortage of reading, there has been a scarcity of writing and talking in the last year or so. If I can get my level of articulation back up to par, it will be easier to work through this.


The H.H. Bennett studio fascinates me for a number of reasons. It seems like it has been, since the first decades of its existence, a manufactured relic. The phony façade seen in this postcard from the sixties has been torn down and the original brick restored (as of 2000 I think). The strange little kiosk seen in the “old” picture (I’m not sure of its vintage) is still there, a sort of little “show and tell” space sitting on the street. I have the feeling I’ll be spending a great deal of the summer in Madison, Wisconsin, trying to research material related to this studio. Oddly congruent with the banner on the old photograph, when I last visited, there were Native American doll relics on display.