Snowflake Bentley’s Pioneering Photos Now Online

Wilson Bentley holds the enviable title of “first person to successfully photograph a snowflake.” Now, almost a century and a half after that landmark photograph, the Natural History Museum in London has digitized a collection of original Bentley prints. Even better, the groundbreaking images are fully available to the public.

“They are so incredibly beautiful,” Andrea Hart, a library special collections manager at the museum, told The Guardian. “When you look a bit closer and see these natural formations, you can understand why his obsession was formed.”

A page from the album of original Snowflake Bentley prints digitized by the Natural History Museum in London.

A page from the album of original Snowflake Bentley prints digitized by the Natural History Museum in London. Photo: Natural History Museum.

 

And obsessed he was. The Vermonter, known to history as Snowflake Bentley, accomplished the first snowflake photograph in 1885 at the age of 19, using a microscope and camera valued at roughly $2,000 by today’s reckoning.

He spent the next 47 winters refining his technique, eventually producing 5,381 snowflake photographs — all using that original gear.

Bentley’s snowflake photographing proclivities earned him no small measure of fame at the turn of the century. Ironically, though, he never quite caught on in his hometown of Jericho, Vermont. As previously reported in ExplorersWeb, Bentley gave a lecture in Jericho at the height of his fame, but almost no one showed up.

“They thought me crazy or a fool or both,” he said.

An incredible accomplishment

It’s worth remembering just how astonishing Bentley’s photographic accomplishment was. In 1885, photography was still in its infancy. Bentley was self-taught and using gear that cost his family roughly as much as a middle-of-the-road camera would cost today.

Imagine giving your high school senior an average Canon digital camera for Christmas, and two years later, he returns from your barn holding photographs no one else has ever managed to produce.

A page from the album of original Snowflake Bentley prints digitized by the Natural History Museum in London.

A page from the album of original Snowflake Bentley prints digitized by the Natural History Museum in London. Photo: Natural History Museum

 

Bentley made it work partly through the clever pairing of photography and microscope equipment, and partly by harnessing key aspects of his exacting personality. He captured snowflakes on a black-painted board before examining each flake carefully with a magnifying glass. After finding an example he deemed worthy of photography, he’d sweep the other flakes away with a turkey feather before transferring his chosen crystal to a glass slide with a splinter of wood.

Bentley examined a snowflake before deciding to photograph it, searching for the bet, most beautiful specimens.

Bentley examined a snowflake before deciding to photograph it, always searching for the most beautiful specimens. Photo: Wilson Bentley

 

Bentley also made obsessive notes about each snowflake he photographed, carefully recording capture conditions (temperature, time, and date) as well as notes on size, shape, and pattern. He was also the first American to record raindrop sizes.

A life well lived

Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley died in Dec. 1931 from pneumonia contracted after walking home through a snowstorm. He was 65. He lived and worked on the Bentley family farm his entire life. Some might find such a life stifling, even by turn-of-the-century standards. Not Snowflake.

“I wouldn’t change places with a king; not for all his power and glory,” he once wrote. “I have my snowflakes!”

And now, so do we. You can view the Natural History Museum’s collection of prints here.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew's essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals. You can find more of his work at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).