Wilson 'Snowflake' Bentley: Biography & Photographs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever caught snowflakes on your tongue or looked closely at a single snowflake's delicate shape? Who discovered that no two snowflakes are alike? In this lesson, learn about Wilson Bentley, the first person to photograph snowflakes.

A Fascinated Boy

Wilson 'Snowflake' Bentley (1865-1931) lived his whole life on a family farm in the northern rural community of Jericho, Vermont. His hometown got lots of snow in the winter, and as a boy, it fascinated Bentley. He was homeschooled and inquisitive, and when he was fifteen, his mother gave him a microscope. He'd catch snowflakes and sketch what he saw through the microscope. But he found it hard to get the details right. His parents, realizing his interest, saved their money and bought him a camera. To satisfy his curiosity, Bentley wanted to figure out how to attach the camera to the microscope and capture a snowflake's image before it melted.

Bentley seemed transfixed by snowflakes' uniqueness, as reflected in this quote: '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. 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.' He was determined to capture some of their beauty.

Bentley's work revealed that no two are alike. When he examined them closely, he saw that every delicate design was different and unique. He thought they were beautiful but knew they were ephemeral, or short-lived, and they didn't last long. It took him two years to figure out his method, and in 1885 when he was only nineteen, he became the first person to take a picture of a snowflake. But how did he photograph such a fragile subject?

Bentley's Process of Photographing Snowflakes

Wilson Bentley pioneered work in snowflake photomicrography, which means images of very small things taken through a microscope.

Wilson Bentley with his camera for photographing snowflakes
Bentley and his camera

Here's how he did it. He gently caught snowflakes on a board or tray and used a feather to brush away surrounding flakes until he found examples he wanted to photograph. Then he took a thin wooden pick and gently lifted individual flakes onto the microscope slide. He'd specially fitted his microscope so he could turn it down horizontally and connect it to his camera, which was fitted with a magnifying lens. It was delicate work. Bentley did it indoors, but in cold temperatures. Otherwise his subjects would melt. Imagine how cold his fingers would have been!

Example of a Bentley snowflake image
Example of snowflake image

After he photographed each flake, he took a copy of his negative and scratched away the emulsion (a thin coating on a photographic plate that is resistant to light) surrounding the image so that clear glass surrounded the shape of the flake. This resulted in his trademark dramatic black backgrounds when he printed the images. With this method, he photographed more than 5000 snowflakes in his lifetime.

Another example of a Bentley image. You can see how different each flake is.
Example of another snowflake

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