Photo courtesy of NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) Collection.
Though they’re roughly a century old, Wilson Bentley’s close-up photographs of snowflakes, taken with the help of a microscope, are as mesmerizing today as when they were first published around the turn of the century. Some of the snowflakes have delicate, lacy fronds around the edges, while others are clean hexagons with intricate geometric patterns. No two are alike, a radical notion that Bentley was the first to assert in 1898, when he first published his photographs. Perhaps as fascinating as the images themselves, which are now in many major museum collections, is the story of Bentley himself, a self-taught farmer-turned-scientist who made these photographs during a time when photography was an expensive, technical endeavor.
Currently the centerpiece of the exhibition “Sixfold Symmetry: Pattern in Art and Science” at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, Bentley’s photographs were made through a process of microphotography, which translated the miniscule details of a snowflake seen under a microscope, to a scale that can be appreciated by the naked eye. According to Tang co-curator Rachel Seligman, the process of photomicrography that Bentley developed was “key in the history of photography,” and “led to our better understanding of the natural world.” Last year, the photographs were included in the exhibition “The Keeper” at the New Museum, which was dedicated to deeply personal, often all-consuming acts of preservation.
Bentley was born in 1865 and grew up on his family’s farm in Jericho, Vermont (not far from Burlington), where snow season stretched from November to as late as May. He was educated mostly at home by his mother, who was a teacher, until the age of 14 when he began attending public school. He spent countless hours exploring his mother’s encyclopedia, and from an early age, he was fascinated by the natural world. According to Duncan C. Blanchard, author of the 1998 biography The Snowflake Man, in his teens Bentley began using a humble microscope to examine feathers, flower petals, stone fragments, raindrops and the like.
In the winter, Bentley began using the microscope to look at snowflakes. Technically known as “ice crystals,” a snowflake begins as a miniscule speck of dust, and water vapor crystallizes around it. How a flake grows depends on humidity and temperature.
Bentley tried to capture what he saw under the microscope through drawing, but wasn’t satisfied. He began reading about photography and discovered that a compound microscope could be connected to a bellows camera to capture microscopic images. He bought a three-foot-long bellows camera and connected it to a compound microscope; he improvised wheels and strings that allowed him to control the camera mechanisms.
Years of trial and error followed. During snowstorms, Bentley diligently focused on his photographs, often missing meals and working in isolation. Among the challenges, which he later wrote about in detail, was the speed at which he had to work, in order to get the image before his subject evaporated. He would collect falling flakes on a blackboard, carefully transfer an intact, individual crystal to a microscope slide using a splint, and use a feather to position it. He would focus the microscope and then expose a dry plate for as long as about five minutes.
In 1885, when Bentley was 20, he successfully captured the first photograph of a snowflake: a sharp, black-and-white image, no larger than a few inches in size. Over the next 13 years, Bentley would create more than 400 such images, working in obscurity.
In 1898, a professor at the University of Vermont heard about Bentley’s work and helped him publish an article in Popular Scientific Monthly. Bentley wrote that, based on his observations, no two snowflakes are alike—a shockingly new idea at the time, which prompted vehement responses in other major journals. Later on, science would prove that his hypothesis was, indeed, correct. “By means of these wonderfully delicate and exquisite figures much may be learned of the history of each crystal and the changes through which it has passed in its journey through cloudland,” Bentley wrote.
While working a 20-cow dairy farm with his brother, Bentley continued making microphotographs and keeping detailed meteorological records, with obsessive intensity. He never married and was known to keep to himself. He kept studying—recording data on raindrops, dew, frost, and clouds—and writing, contributing articles to magazines such as National Geographic and scientific studies to Monthly Weather Review. His ideas anticipated key concepts in meteorology, though he received very little recognition during his lifetime.
Bentley sold slides of his photographs to colleges and universities, and the images became popular with engravers, textile designers and jewelers, who used them as a model for cutting gems. In 1931, the same year Bentley died of pneumonia (which may have been caused by a walk through a snowstorm), roughly half of his 5,000 snowflake photographs were published in the book Snow Crystals, which was reissued by Dover in 1962 and is available to this day.
The man who earned the title “Snowflake Man” is now something of a folk hero, or perhaps an outsider artist. Seligman muses, “By allowing us to visualize the delicate balance between pattern and variation, the photographs are a singular example of our human desire to capture, investigate, and understand pattern.”