Wilson A. Bentley, a self-taught farmer from Jericho, Vermont, was the first person to capture the beauty of snowflakes on film. When he was 17, his father bought him a bellows camera and a microscope and he spent two years trying to take the first photomicrograph of a snowflake. He finally succeeded in 1885, when he was 19.
That became his life’s passion. He filled 9 journals over 47 years with detailed notes about his photographic tecniques and the weather. He became known in town as “Snowflake Bentley”.
The scientific community was slow to accept his work. They were unconvinced that his methods were accurate. They thought it was 19th century photoshop, basically, although eventually he was inducted a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society in 1920.
In 1931, he published a book of his snowflake photography called Snow Crystals. He lived to see it in print, but died soon thereafter of pneumonia after walking home through a blizzard.
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.
Ten of his snowflake pictures and 16 winterscapes are being sold by the Carl Hammer Gallery at this year’s American Antiques Show. These images are very rarely available for sale. The estimated price is $4800 per picture.
His hometown of Jericho has built a museum in his honor. You can virtually tour it on the website: Snowflake Bentley Museum. The Buffalo Museum of Science also has a vast collection of his original glass plates which you can browse online.