WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. — A historic photography studio in Wisconsin can produce spooky images, popularized 150 years ago.
There are lots of kitschy places to get old-timey photos taken in Wisconsin Dells. But only one of those places has been there for nearly 150 years.
The H.H. Bennett Photography Studio was created by photographer H.H. Bennett after the Civil War. He loved to photograph the beautiful landscapes all over southwestern Wisconsin.
David Rambow loves the history of photography. He now works at the H.H. Bennett Studio, now owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
“[The studio is] one of the oldest, if not the oldest, photo studio, that continuously ran as a portrait studio until 1998,” he said.
He uses antique cameras and chemical processes to create tintype photographs, the same way Bennett did, in the studio Bennett built.
They can even produce spooky-looking photography first popularized in the 1800s.
“In the late nineteenth century, spiritualism was the thing,” Rambow said.
Spiritualism was the emerging belief that people on earth could communicate with the dead. The death toll of the Civil War was so high, there were tons of Americans who wanted to know they could speak to the loved ones they lost.
“So many people lost relatives and loved ones in the Civil War in our country. A lot of those people just didn’t come back, and they didn’t have any closure,” Rambow said.
Some photographers took advantage of the spiritualism trend, and the grief of loved ones left behind. One of the most famous is William Mumler. He would do “spirit photography.” The family member would sit for a photo, and when developed, they’d see a transparent figure joining them in the photo.
It was all trickery. Anyone sitting for a tintype would have to stay completely still for minutes at a time. Mumler would combine that photograph with another, creating the ghostly image. Photographers would also have other people enter the photo for a portion of the exposure time, so they would turn out transparent.
First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was known as a spiritualist after losing their son Willie when he was just 12 years old. After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, she sat for a spirit photography session with Mumler.
“They would make money on it, people would take up to $10 to get their photo taken with their loved one,” said Alyssa Crossley, who also works at the H.H. Bennett studio. “Even after known, renowned spiritualists had debunked them, and proved that these were living people that were supposed to be ghosts.”
However, with their antique gear and process, Rambow and Crossley can still create those images today. We gave it a try for Halloween.
Crossley dressed up to give herself a period-appropriate ghostly silhouette. Rambow operated the camera and gave instructions.
Then, it was time to process the tintype. Rambow brings it into his darkroom, where he dips it in chemical mixtures to develop the photo.
An audience had gathered to see how the tintype turned out. It developed right in front of everyone’s eyes.
Now, creating photos like these is a cool experience to have and see. But back then, grieving people were desperate to connect with ones they’d lost.
The H.H. Bennett Photography Studio will close for the season after Halloween. For more information and to see if you should make an appointment, click here.