He's known as "the man who made Wisconsin Dells famous." Lest you think it was an owner of Wisconsin Dells water parks, or ski show entrepreneur, let's reveal right here and now that it is Henry Hamilton Bennett. Never heard of him? He’s considered one of the top 10, maybe even the top three landscape photographers of the 19th century. Still not ringing a bell? Perhaps his photos will jog your memory. Surely you've seen the picture of a young man leaping from one rock ledge to another. It's titled "Leaping the Chasm" and is one of Bennett's most famous. The photo captures Bennett's son Ashley frozen in mid-air. At the time, many people thought the photograph was faked since stop-motion had not been invented. Until Bennett helped change photography forever with his use of a stop-action shutter he called the "snapper". The story goes that Bennett had Ashley repeat the jump multiple times to get just the right shot, a story that would make any mother cringe. His life and photos are superbly chronicled at one of the most historic Wisconsin Dells attractions, the H.H. Bennett Studio which was the photographer's original studio that still stands on Broadway in downtown Dells. There's even an exhibit devoted to the famous photo, with markers on the floor to test your own leaping ability.
Bennett was born in 1843. A carpenter by trade, he turned to photography after a Civil War injury to his hand made carpentry work impossible. He opened his studio in the Dells, then known as Kilbourn City, in 1875. We strolled the gallery-style museum and original darkroom with Bennett's granddaughter, Jean Reese. She lovingly pointed out photos of her mother as a little girl sporting a cute straw hat with ribbons down the back. According to Reese, her mother admitted to being an impatient subject, very much disliking having to sit still while her father, ever the perfectionist, posed every shot just so.
Along with photos of his family, it's the mystical photos of the towering bluffs and swirling Wisconsin River that drew the first tourists to the area, and ultimately sparked Wisconsin Dells tourism.
According to the museum's director, David Rambow, the studio may just be the longest running business on a main street in the country. Once you step inside and take in the incredible photographic portraits of the native Ho-Chunk people, the landscapes of the unusual sandstone bluffs, and Bennett's family photos, you'll have a new appreciation for how the Dells came to be.
Prints of Bennett's most famous photos are available for purchase. The museum at 215 Broadway is open from May to October and those interested outside those dates may look online, call 608.253.3523, or email for information.