American photographer and amateur scientist Wilson A. Bentley captured the unique beauty of snowflakes in minute detail as never before, through a groundbreaking photographic technique.
Born in 1865 on a farm in Vermont, Bentley was homeschooled by his mother, a former teacher, who encouraged his natural curiosity and proclivity for exploration of the outdoors. As a boy, Bentley catalogued the world around him—taking notes and making drawings of what he observed—including weather, local animals, plants, and insects. Bentley marveled at the wonder of the natural world and took to examining finds from the outdoors under his mother’s microscope.
At age 15, he received his very own microscope as a birthday gift, which he took outdoors so that he might examine falling snowflakes and record his observations in his notebook. Soon, he found that the flakes melted too quickly for him to accurately capture their detail by drawing, and so he sought a way to photograph them instead.
Experimenting in his parents’ barn, Bentley modified a bellows camera to photograph through the lens of his microscope, giving him the opportunity to capture images of the snowflakes in detail. Quickly, he realized that the indoor temperature of the barn would not allow sufficient time for the photographic exposure, and so he moved his experiment outdoors.
Catching snowflakes on a feather during a snowstorm, Bentley carefully transferred individual flakes to microscope slides, exposing them on film for about 90 seconds each. By age 19, in 1885, Bentley created his first successfully photograph of a snowflake. He later wrote, “The day that I developed the first negative made by this method, and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshipping it! It was the greatest moment of my life.”
The resulting images were so crisp that even years later, scientists who could not replicate the technique accused the images of being fakes. He is now credited as a pioneer of the photomicrographic techniques that made this type of photography possible.
Toward the end of his life, Bentley is quoted as saying, “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.”
During his 40-year career, Bentley captured thousands of photographs of snowflakes, dewdrops, and other phenomena that now reside in museum collections, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Buffalo Museum of Science, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also published 60 articles in various scientific and popular journals, including The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Harper’s Monthly, and National Geographic, in which he discussed frost, dew, snow, and other weather.
Bentley passed away in 1931 from pneumonia after walking outside during a blizzard—not surprising for a man so enamored of snow. His legacy lives on through these elegant photographs, and his theory that no two snowflakes are alike.