An homage to the snowflake

As a photographer and self-proclaimed lover of snow, I found this PBS article interesting. (Not to mention cleverly titled: “Winter Forecast: Art to Blanket Region” –especially given the hyperbolic language of recent Weather Channel forecasts in which the “epic” snowstorm was discussed ad nauseum.) In 1885 Wilson Bentley was the first person to ever photograph a snowflake and I don’t mean in the beautiful fluttery “I’m in a snow globe” sense. Mr. Bentley ingeniously found a way to “jury rig” (as the article author describes it) his camera and microscope enabling him to photograph, in detail, a single snowflake. And, according to the article, Bentley photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes before his death in 1915.

Bentley was a pioneer in the world of photomicrography and his techniques have been used since. I was particularly impressed by the fact that Bentley was self-educated and by his dedication. By all accounts it took him years to get the microscope-camera combination right. Then there’s the brilliance of the idea–what prompted him to want to photograph a snowflake. Granted, having grown up on a farm in Vermont, he certainly had a lot of time to contemplate snow. Still, I am intrigued by the mental process that led him to photographing snowflakes. Perhaps it’s the rhetorician in me, but I want to know the motivation that led to the act. Perhaps part of the answer is in this quote:

“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.”

Well, regardless of motive, the act itself is most impressive. I suppose we can thank Bentley for our knowledge that no single snowflake is identical to any other, truly amazing given the sheer number of snowflakes that have fallen on this earth.

One question remains: how did he keep them from freezing? I can’t find any lengthy description of his process. Extreme cold temperatures should have interfered with the camera equipment. Any illumination (if you will) would be appreciated.

Photo credit: Wilson Bentley’s work is in the public domain and this photograph was copied from a website in his honor