Enjoy Snow? Here’s the Man Who Took the First Pictures of Snowflakes

Though not an explorer of geographies, Snowflake Bentley was a searcher in every other sense of the word. One of winter’s most beloved advocates, Bentley devoted his life to photographing snow crystals through a primitive apparatus. With religious devotion, the lifelong bachelor and self-educated farmer accumulated 5,381 different photomicrographs of snowflakes. Every schoolkid knows his conclusion: No two snowflakes are alike.

Wilson A. Bentley was born in 1865 in Jericho, near Burlington, Vermont. He spent his teenage years peering through an old microscope that his mother had acquired during her time as a schoolteacher. A period photo shows a coarse-featured young man, looking even more awkward in his skin than the typical adolescent. Nowadays he would be called a nerd. In the nineteenth century, no one suspected that nerds are often the ones who have all the fun in life when they grow up.

Snowflake Bentley at 20.

 

Bentley’s father, a practical dairy farmer, considered his younger son a bit of an airhead. But somehow his mother convinced her husband to spend a hundred dollars –- two thousand dollars in today’s money –- on a camera and microscope that the 17-year-old could use to photograph the snowflakes that already fascinated him. Bentley used these implements for the rest of his life.

Bentley must have seemed impossibly eccentric in nineteenth-century Jericho. The prophet-without-honor syndrome persisted his entire life. As a teenager, his unfathomable interest in snowflakes exasperated his father. His brother, with whom he later shared the family farmhouse outside Jericho, said Bentley “spent too much time with his head in the clouds.” Decades later, when his snowflake photos had made him world famous, Bentley gave a free lecture in town. Almost no one showed up. “They thought me crazy or a fool or both,” he said.

Photo: Wilson Bentley

 

Today, the Jericho Historical Society, located in an old mill on the highway through town, is essentially the Wilson Bentley Museum. It sells snowflake chocolates, snowflake quilts, books on Bentley, and postcards or prints of his photographs. The attached room exhibits portraits of the hometown boy, some of his exquisite photos, and personal gear such as his zebra-striped mittens and black collecting tray.

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

 

Perhaps there should be an Anti-Bandwagon Law that prohibits a hometown from cashing in on its disdained sons after they are famous. But Bentley would probably have been as graceful about his acceptance as he was about his rejection. “I wouldn’t change places with a king; not for all his power and glory,” he once wrote. “I have my snowflakes!”

Photo: Wilson Bentley

His love affair with winter seemed bred in the bone. “I can’t remember the time I didn’t love snow,” he wrote years later. But Wilson also a practical side. Within weeks of receiving his camera-and-microscope unit, he managed to solve several technical problems associated with his tiny, evanescent subjects.

Photography, to say nothing of photomicrography, was in its infancy, and there were no manuals, no books, and in rural Vermont, no teachers. Yet working in the farm’s unheated woodshed, he took the world’s first successful photo of a snow crystal on January 15, 1885. Bentley, who loved exclamation points almost as much as snowflakes, wrote of that day, “I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshiping it! I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life!”

Photo: Wilson Bentley

 

Bentley proved that you don’t have to be a skier to look forward to winter. For the next 46 years, he exuberantly photographed snow crystals on that primitive device, creating images 64 to 3,600 times larger than life. He was one of those nineteenth-century hybrids known as a naturalist, combining a scientist’s rigor with an amateur’s enthusiasm and sense of wonder. At times, he also seems like a Far Eastern mystic, seeking the entire universe in a flake of snow.

After their parents died, he and his brother shared the family farmhouse. Bentley lived on one side, his brother and family on the other. He took part in the farm duties and earned extra money for his photographic supplies by teaching music.

He settled into his exterior persona as a shy, harmless eccentric, but his quiet dedication never wavered. Every snowfall, he collected the drifting flakes, then hurried into his cold chamber to photograph the better ones. He saw himself as a preserver of nature’s loveliest and most transient artistry. In an interview years later, he spoke of one beautiful crystal that broke as he was transferring it from his collection box. His voice actually shook with emotion as he described the loss.

Photo: Wilson Bentley

 

In 1898, after 14 years of toiling in patient obscurity, Bentley felt the urge to share his work and perhaps, get some recognition for it. In quick succession, he sold some photos to Harvard University for display and showed some prints to George Perkins, a professor of natural history at the University of Vermont.

Perkins encouraged Bentley to write about his work and he put him in touch with other scholars. All were smitten with the imagery and impressed by Bentley’s meticulous observations of the weather conditions in which these gems had formed. Among other things, he noticed that the finest specimens came from the west, at the end of a large storm.

Even in that slower-paced era, Bentley’s work quickly became known around the world. Soon, professors were writing to him. By 1906, the farmer’s son was listed in Who’s Who in America. And he had found his writing voice, eventually penning, in his tiny, precise script, over a hundred articles on snowflakes (as well as a few on the size of raindrops –- he had to have something with which to fill his summers). Many of his articles convey the sense of wonder we all experienced as children, the first time we noticed a snow crystal’s six-sided symmetry.

Photo: Wilson Bentley

 

“A snowflake is a bit of beauty dropped from the sky…that if lost at that moment, is lost forever,” he wrote. He also reflected on his early labors: “I knew I had something to give to the world, but no one seemed to care for it.”

Bentley continued to photograph snowflakes for three more decades. He had achieved recognition, but financial solvency remained elusive. In 1926, he estimated that he had spent a total of $15,000 in time and materials, and earned less than $4,000 from it.

Photo: Wilson Bentley

 

In 1931, his landmark book, Snow Crystals, was published. It contained 2,453 of his finest images. One month later, he caught pneumonia after walking home through the slush. He died two weeks later, at the age of 66. His gravestone in the sloping Jericho cemetery says simply, “Wilson. Snowflake Man.”

One year I visited Jericho to pay my respects to Bentley. After my visit to the museum, I drove to his old farmhouse just outside town. The yellow and white house, surrounded by maple bush and hayfields, points toward looming Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s snowy giant. A large white zinc snowflake, erected by a later owner, sat atop the gable overlooking the road.

The couple who now live here had not known of Snowflake Bentley when they purchased their home.  But now and then, pilgrims like myself come to pay homage to one of winter’s greatest advocates.

For me, more touching than the house were two photos in the museum. The first was that portrait of young Bentley as a coarse-featured rube. The other showed Bentley as an old man, with a silver brush mustache and luminous, wonder-full eyes, a person who has finally found his place in this world, thanks to a love of snowflakes.

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. Canada's premier arctic traveler, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and is currently working on a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada.


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