Wisconsin Dells, wrote geologist Joseph Norwood 1847, “ presents a mixture of the grand, the beautiful and the fantastic.” Probably the first man of science to see the Dells, Norwood was describing the gallery of sandstone sculptures carved by the Wisconsin River when it burst through a glacial dam 14,000 years ago. Nineteenth-century promoters would soon build hotels, launch steamboats and give the formations fanciful names – Jaws of the Dells, Witches’ Gulch, Hornet’s Nest, Navy Yard, Fat Man’s Misery, Cold Water Canyon and others – in an effort to attract tourists with money to spend.
Dr. Norwood should see the place today. The formations are still there, and they still evoke feelings of the grand and the beautiful, but today’s emphasis is clearly on the fantastic of the man-made kind. A new generation of promoters has created attractions with highly dramatic names – Mt. Olympus, Noah’s Ark, Poseidon’s Rage, the Lost Temple, Scorpion’s Tail and the Howlin’ Tornado, among others – in a continuing campaign to separate tourists from their cash. A destination once hailed as “a fairy story landscape, rugged and wild” has been rebranded the “Waterpark Capital of the World.”
It’s no surprise that photographers have tried to capture Wisconsin Dells in all its iterations over the years. From pioneers Leroy Gates and the incomparable Henry Hamilton Bennett in the 19th century to the Bennett Studio photographers and John Trumble in the 20th, practitioners with widely varying perspectives have created a visual record of Wisconsin’s leading tourist attraction.
There work is showcased in a new exhibition, “Among the Wonders of the Dells: Photography, Place, Tourism,” organized by the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend and running there through Sept. 8. But MOWA didn’t stop at historic images. The museum commissioned three contemporary photographers – Mark Brautigam (who took the black-and-white photo of the duck boat launching featured above), Tom Jones and Kevin J. Miyazaki – to bring the record up to date. The result is a multidimensional portrait – often inspiring, always illuminating – of an iconic Wisconsin landscape that has been a center of attention for well over 150 years.
The unique riverscape of the Wisconsin Dells
has attracted tourists since the 1850s. This
ever-increasing influx of visitors, and the resulting
commercial development, stands in sharp
contrast to the natural beauty that initially
drew people to the area. My work in the
Wisconsin Dells explores this nexus
of mass tourism and a timeless landscape.
In previous bodies of work, I’ve used portraiture to portray the human landscape of a place. In the Dells, where the dramatic scenery helped to shape its history, I was thrilled to photograph subjects in the historic studio of H.H. Bennett, who began photographing his own contemporaries there in 1875.
As a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Jones portrays a tourist culture that has appropriated Native imagery, often without regard for authenticity and economic parity.