The Haunting Beauty of Snowflakes: Wilson Bentley’s Pioneering 19th-Century Photomicroscopy of Snow Crystals
The quest to capture nature’s vanishing masterpieces, endowed with the delicacy of flowers and the mathematical precision of honeycombs.
By Maria Popova
Hardly any scientific finding has permeated popular culture more profoundly, transmuted its truth into a more pervasive cliché, or inspired more uninspired college application essays than the fact that no two snowflakes are alike. But for the vast majority of human history, the uniqueness of snowflakes was far from an established fact.
In the early seventeenth century, while revolutionizing science with the celestial mechanics of the macro scale that would land his mother in a witchcraft trial, Johannes Kepler turned his inquisitive imagination to the micro scale with a rather unusual Christmas present he made for a friend — a booklet titled The Six-Cornered Snowflake, exploring in a playful and poetic way the science of why snowflakes have six sides. When one landed on his sleeve in the bitter Prague winter, Kepler found himself wondering why snowflakes “always come down with six corners and with six radii tufted like feathers” — and not, say, with five or seven. Centuries before the advent of crystallography, the visionary astronomer became the first to invite science into this ancient dwelling place of beauty and to ask, essentially, why snowflakes are the way they are. But it would be another two centuries before this intersection of science and splendor enraptures the popular imagination with the nexus of truth and beauty in the form of ice crystals — a task that would fall on a teenage farm-boy in Vermont.
Wilson Bentley (February 9, 1865–December 23, 1931) was fifteen when his mother, aware of her son’s sensitive curiosity and artistic bent, strained the family’s means to give him a microscope for his birthday. Over the next four years, while Walt Whitman was exulting a state over that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Wilson placed every curio he could find under his microscope: blades of grass, pebbles, insects. The day he managed to place a snowflake on the glass plate and to savor its microscopic perfection before it melted, he was besotted. Snowflakes became his life. “Miracles of beauty,” he called them. He began sketching what he saw through his microscope, but felt that his drawings failed to capture the full miraculousness before it vanished into liquid erasure. Although his father was already irate with the boy’s artistic deviation from farm labor, “fussing with snowflakes” rather than pulling potatoes, Wilson somehow persuaded him to invest in a camera.
Weeks before his twentieth birthday, he mounted his new 1.5-inch microscope eyepiece to the lens of his enormous view camera with its accordion-like body fully extended. On January 15, 1880, Wilson Bentley took his first photograph of a snowflake. Mesmerized by the beauty of the result, he transported his equipment to the unheated wooden shed behind the farmhouse and began recording his work in two separate sets of notebooks — one filled with sketches and dedicated to refining his artistic photomicroscopy; the other filled with weather data, carefully monitoring the conditions under which various snowflakes were captured.
For forty-six winters to come, this slender quiet boy, enchanted by the wonders of nature and attentive to its minutest manifestations, would hold his breath over the microscope-camera station and take more than 5,000 photographs of snow crystals — each a vanishing masterpiece with the delicacy of a flower and the mathematical precision of a honeycomb, a ghost of perfection melting onto the glass plate within seconds, a sublime metaphor for the ecstasy and impermanence of beauty, of life itself. A generation after the invention of photography recalibrated our relationship to impermanence, Wilson Bentley devoted his life to popularizing the uniqueness of snowflakes and helping others appreciate the ephemeral “masterpiece of design” that each snowflake is, its singular and fleeting existence never to be replicated, its beauty gone “without leaving any record behind.”
In his later years, he reflected on the adolescent passion that would become his life’s work:
I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness, an ambition to become, in some measure, its preserver.
And so he did. Wilson Bentley, who comes alive in Duncan Blanchard’s wonderful 1998 biography The Snowflake Man (public library), grew famous as Snowflake Bentley, establishing himself as the world’s first snowflake photographer and enrapturing vast audiences with nature’s masterworks of ephemeral perfection.
Half a century after he first grew enchanted with the photomicroscopy of snowflakes, in a 1922 article for Popular Mechanics, Bentley extolled the rewards of this art purchased by physical hardship in below-freezing temperatures:
Every snowflake has an infinite beauty which is enhanced by knowledge that the investigator will, in all probability, never find another exactly like it. Consequently, photographing these transient forms of Nature gives to the worker something of the spirit of a discoverer. Besides combining her greatest skill and artistry in the production of snowflakes, Nature generously fashions the most beautiful specimens on a very thin plane so that they are specially adapted for photomicrographical study.
Months before his death, his life’s work was finally published under the title Snow Crystals — a scrumptious monograph of 2,500 of his most beguiling photographs, which remains in print today as Snowflakes in Photographs (public library).
Complement with artist Rose-Lynn Fisher’s haunting photomicroscopy of tears cried under various emotions and these gorgeous vintage illustrations of scientific process and phenomena — including an early diagram of snowflake geometries — from a French physics textbook predating the widespread application of photography, then revisit the story of how, a generation before Bentley, the young photographer John Adams Whipple changed our relationship to impermanence with his pioneering astrophotography.