Living in the snowbelt of Jericho, Vermont, in the 1800s meant dealing with around 120 inches of snow each year. While many dreaded those winters, at least one person found the beauty in what they offered: Wilson Bentley, who was so intrigued by the mystery of snowflakes that he became the first person to successfully photograph one.
It is largely due to Bentley’s pioneering photomicrographs of snow crystals that the world became aware that no two are alike.
Born in Jericho in 1865, Bentley lived and worked on his family’s farm and was taught by his mother. From the time he was a small boy, he was fascinated by the natural world around him and loved to study butterflies, leaves and spider webs. He kept a daily record of the weather conditions and was fascinated by raindrops. He first became interested in snow crystals after he received a microscope for his fifteenth birthday.
“Always, right from the beginning, it was the snowflakes that fascinated me most,” Bentley said. “The farm folks up in this country dread the winter, but I was supremely happy.”
He tried to draw the snowflakes he saw through that microscope, but they were too complex to record before they melted, so the self-taught photographer came up with a solution and invented a new method in the process: photomicrography, the photographing of very small objects, especially of snowflakes. He connected his bellows camera to the microscope in order to create photos that showed intricate details of each snow crystal. The apparatus was set up outside so that the delicate specimens would not melt, and he stood in the cold for hours at a time, waiting patiently until he caught falling flakes on a blackboard and rapidly and carefully transferred each one to a microscope slide. He captured his first image of a snowflake in January 1885.
For over forty years, Bentley, who became known as “The Snowflake Man,” captured more than 5,000 stunning images of crystals.
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others,” Bentley said. “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design, and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.”
Modern snowflake expert Kenneth G. Libbrecht said that while Bentley’s photos do not meet modern standards because of the “crude equipment” he used, “He did it so well that hardly anybody botheredto photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years.”
In collaboration with University of Vermont natural history professor George Henry Perkins, Bentley published an article in which he argued that no two snow crystals were alike. This concept caught the public imagination and he published other articles in magazines including National Geographic, Popular Science and Nature. Bentley’s photographs have been requested by academic institutions worldwide.
Some of his snowflake photos also periodically come to various auctions and sell for thousands of dollars. On February 25, Swann Auction Galleries offered two Bentley lots: a group of three microphotos of snowflakes, circa 1910, that sold for $2,125; and a group of four photographs including two snowy landscapes and a pair of cloud studies, that sold for $3,000.
Swann has sold many other lots of Bentley’s work over the years, ranging from an album of 25 microphotographs of snowflakes that sold for $52,000 in 2016 to a single snowflake photo that sold for around $1,700. Bentley’s photography of frost and ice crystals also sells for thousands of dollars.
Groupings of Bentley’s snowflake photos have also sold at Sotheby’s, ranging from $10,000 to $32,200.
The broadest collection of Bentley’s photographs is held by the Jericho Historical Society in his home town of Jericho. He also donated his collection of original glass-plate photomicrographs of snow crystals to the Buffalo Museum of Science; a portion of this collection has been digitized and organized into a digital library. A collection of 500 of his snowflake photographs was also donated to the Smithsonian Institution to protect against “all possibility of loss and destruction, through fire or accident.”
Bentley remained in Jericho throughout his life. Ever dedicated to his work, he died there in 1931 after having caught pneumonia from walking through a blizzard.
For more information about Bentley and his work, as well as snowflake photos, visit www.snowflakebently.com, the official website for Bentley, owned and operated by the Jericho Historical Society; the Smithsonian Institution Archives; and the Buffalo Museum of Science collection at www.nyheritage.org/collections/bentley-snow-crystal-collection.