I first heard of Wilson Bentley two days ago, when my Mum sent me a photo she’d taken of a snowflake. As anyone who has ever tried to capture the delicate beauty of a snowflake on camera will know, it’s no mean feat, but this was a very clear image and I told her how impressed I was. She replied, ‘If you want to see some amazing pics, look up Wilson Bentley’s snowflake photos’. This I did, and stumbled upon an incredible story of one man’s dedication to both art and science, who took stunning photographs in an era long before we all carried HD cameras in our pockets.
Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born in Jericho, Vermont on 9 February 1865. Living in an area that experienced heavy snowfall year on year, he became intrigued by snow crystals (what we commonly call snowflakes) and determined to draw them, however they always melted before he was able to fully translate their intricate structures on to paper. Experimenting with a microscope his mother had given him, Bentley engineered a way to attach this to a camera and eventually, on 15 January 1885, became the first known person to photograph a single snowflake.
Continuing his photomicrographic experiments, Bentley quickly realised that no two snowflakes were the same. He is now widely credited as the pioneer who discovered that each snowflake is unique, albeit formed around a similar hexagonal structure. Over the next 40 years, Bentley took over 5000 images of snow crystals, perfecting his technique of catching them on a black tray, isolating each with a feather and holding his breath throughout the process. His patience and tenacity resulted in strikingly clear images, which are all the more remarkable given the limitations of the technology available in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Bentley’s fascination with and determination to record the transient beauty of individual snowflakes is evident from a comment he made in 1925: ‘Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind‘. In finding a way to preserve and magnify these tiny fragments of ice through photography, he became known as the Snowflake Man, or Snowflake Bentley. He wrote meteorological articles about his observations, all the while continuing to work as a farmer in Jericho. A book containing over 2000 of his images, titled Snow Crystals, was published in 1931.
Bentley died two days before Christmas the same year, at the age of 66, after contracting pneumonia following a walk home to the family farm through a blizzard. Over a century after he first captured snow crystals on camera, his life’s work remains an incredible representation of both the beauty and wonder of the natural world.