The First Photographs of Snowflakes: Discover the Groundbreaking Microphotography of Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1885)

What kind of a blight­ed soci­ety turns the word “snowflake” into an insult?, I some­times catch myself think­ing, but then again, I’ve nev­er under­stood why “tree­hug­ger” should offend. All irony aside, being known as a per­son who loves nature or resem­bles one of its most ele­gant cre­ations should be a mark of dis­tinc­tion, no? At least that’s what Wil­son “Snowflake” Bent­ley sure­ly thought.

The Ver­mont farmer, self-edu­cat­ed nat­u­ral­ist, and avid pho­tog­ra­ph­er, was the first per­son to offer the fol­low­ing wis­dom on the record, then illus­trate it with hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of pic­tures of snowflakes, 5,000 in all:

I found that snowflakes were mir­a­cles of beau­ty; and it seemed a shame that this beau­ty should not be seen and appre­ci­at­ed by oth­ers. 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.

Bent­ley left a con­sid­er­able record—though still an insignif­i­cant sam­ple size giv­en the scope of the object of study. But his pho­tographs give the impres­sion of an infi­nite vari­ety of dif­fer­ent types, each with the same basic crys­talline lat­tice­work struc­ture. He took his first pho­to­graph of a snowflake, the first ever tak­en, in 1885, by adapt­ing a micro­scope to a bel­lows cam­era, after years of mak­ing sketch­es and much tri­al and error.

Some great por­tion of this work must have been tedious and frustrating—Bentley had to hold his breath for each expo­sure lest he destroy the pho­to­graph­ic sub­ject. But it was worth the effort. Bent­ley, the Smith­son­ian informs us, “was a pio­neer in ‘pho­tomi­crog­ra­phy,’ the pho­tograph­ing of very small objects.” Five hun­dred of his pho­tographs now reside at the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion Archives, “offered by Bent­ley in 1903 to pro­tect against ‘all pos­si­bil­i­ty of loss and destruc­tion, through fire or acci­dent.” You can see a huge dig­i­tal gallery of those hun­dreds of pho­tos here.

Along with U.S. Weath­er Bureau physi­cist William J. Humphreys, he pub­lished 2300 of his snowflake pho­tographs in a mono­graph titled Snow Crys­tals. Bent­ley also pub­lished over 60 arti­cles on the sub­ject (read two of them here). Despite his con­tri­bu­tions, he receives no men­tion in most his­to­ries of pho­tomi­crog­ra­phy. This may be due to his provin­cial loca­tion (he nev­er left Jeri­cho, VT) or his lack of sci­en­tif­ic train­ing and cre­den­tials, or a lack of inter­est in pho­tos of snowflakes on the part of most pho­tomi­crog­ra­phy his­to­ri­ans.

Or it may be because Bent­ley was thought to be a fraud. When a Ger­man mete­o­rol­o­gist com­mis­sioned some images of his own and got some very dif­fer­ent results, he accused the farmer of retouch­ing. Bent­ley read­i­ly admit­ted it, say­ing, “a true sci­en­tist wish­es above all to have his pho­tographs as true to nature as pos­si­ble, and if retouch­ing will help in this respect, then it is ful­ly jus­ti­fied.”

The defense is a good one. Although the “nature” Bentley’s pho­tos show us may be a the­o­ret­i­cal ide­al­iza­tion, so too are the hand-ren­dered illus­tra­tions of most sci­en­tists through­out his­to­ry (and near­ly every med­ical dia­gram today). Take, for exam­ple, the psy­che­del­ic, bright­ly col­ored pat­terns of accom­plished biol­o­gist Ernst Haeck­el, who turned the micro- and macro­scop­ic world into sur­re­al­ly sym­met­ri­cal art in his draw­ings. Though he might not have said so direct­ly, Bent­ley was doing some­thing sim­i­lar with a cam­era. Just lis­ten to him describe his process in a 1900 issue of Harper’s:

Quick, the first flakes are com­ing; the couri­ers of the com­ing snow storm. Open the sky­light, and direct­ly under it place the care­ful­ly pre­pared black­board, on whose ebony sur­face the most minute form of frozen beau­ty may be wel­come from cloud-land. The mys­ter­ies of the upper air are about to reveal them­selves, if our hands are deft and our eyes quick enough.

In the “qui­et fren­zy of his winter’s quest,” writes Alli­son Meier at Hyper­al­ler­gic, he pro­duced images of “beau­ti­ful ghosts from a win­ter that bris­tled the air over a cen­tu­ry ago.” Learn more about Bentley’s life, work, and the Smith­son­ian col­lec­tion in the short doc­u­men­tary fur­ther up, the Wash­ing­ton Post video above, and the Radi­o­lab episode below, in which a breath­less Latif Nass­er takes us into the heart of Bentley’s ori­gin sto­ry, and “snowflake expert and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ken Lib­brecht helps set the record straight.”

Real snowflakes have many imper­fec­tions, and per­haps Bent­ley did snow a dis­ser­vice to so stren­u­ous­ly sug­gest oth­er­wise. But the record he left us, Meier notes, “is appre­ci­at­ed as much as an artis­tic archive as a mete­o­ro­log­i­cal one.” He might have been a sci­en­tist when it came to tech­nique, but Bent­ley was a roman­tic when it came to snow. His sto­ry is as fas­ci­nat­ing as his pho­tographs. Maybe a delight­ful alter­na­tive to the usu­al Christ­mas fare. There’s even a chil­dren’s book called… what else?…  Snowflake Bent­ley.

via Smith­son­ian/Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold the Very First Col­or Pho­to­graph (1861): Tak­en by Scot­tish Physi­cist (and Poet!) James Clerk Maxwell

See the First Pho­to­graph of a Human Being: A Pho­to Tak­en by Louis Daguerre (1838)

The First Known Pho­to­graph of Peo­ple Shar­ing a Beer (1843)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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