Vermont farmer Wilson A. Bentley was known as Snowflake Bentley for being the first person to successfully photograph a snowflake. A farmer in the 19th-century, Bentley became famous for photographing more than 5,000 jewel-like snowflakes.
Bentley, also known as The Snowflake Man, was fascinated with the icy precipitation, and he was able to capture one on film in 1885. Thousands of others followed – and no two were alike. The methods that Bentley used eventually became known as photomicrography.
By jury-rigging a microscope with a bellows camera, Bentley was able to capture for the first time the exquisite delicacy of a snowflake. His groundbreaking 1931 book, ‘Snow Crystals,’ recorded for posterity the beauty, fragility and lacy designs of 2,500 snowflakes.
Last year, his images were placed on the auction block at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Ten of them were snowflakes, which he called snow crystals, and were priced at $4,800 each. The others show winter scenes. They were being offered by Carl Hammer, whose Chicago art gallery was showing 20 other Bentley photographs.
In an interview with the Associated Press last year, Hammer said: ‘They’re remarkably beautiful. There are imperfections on the outer edges of the image itself and on the paper, but the images themselves are quite spectacular.’
Bentley’s photos don’t meet modern standards because he was ‘working with crude equipment,’ said Kenneth G. Libbrecht, who has written seven books on snowflakes and grows snow crystals in a laboratory.
‘But he did it so well that hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years,’ said Libbrecht, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology.
When Libbrecht became interested in snowflakes, he said, Bentley was still the standard. The method of singling out a crystal to photograph hasn’t changed in all that time.
‘You basically let the crystal fall on something, black or dark-colored, and then you have to pick it up with a toothpick or brush and put it on a glass slide,’ Libbrecht said.