Snow Crystals | Wilson Bentley


When Wilson Bentley died in 1931, his hometown newspaper eulogized him thus: “Longfellow said that genius is infinite painstaking. John Ruskin declared that genius is only a superior power of seeing. Wilson Bentley was a living example of this type of genius.”

A fine accolade for a photographer. Born in Vermont to a family prosperous enough to gift him a microscope at his 15th birthday, Bentley, for the next half a century, would go on to perfect a process of photographing snowflakes on black velvet before they melted away. Having grown up on a farm where the annual snowfall was 120 inches, Bentley’s obsession with precipitation began early, and sustained him throughout his life. As a young boy, Bentley would hand-draw pictures of snow crystals, and in his lifetime, Wilson made over 5,000 photographic negatives of dew frost, snowflakes, raindrops, clouds and fog. He wrote the entry on ‘snow’ in Encyclopedia Britannica.


Although he was dismissed initially as an uneducated country bumpkin by the scientific community of the day (Bentley’s notes, laced with purple prose about nature and God did not help), towards the end of his life, his work was embraced and Bentley embarked on lecture tours across the United States. In fact, today, if you have seen a picture of a snowflake in a textbook or in a store, it was likely based off a Bentley photo. His book, Snow Crystals, illustrated with 2,500 photographs was still the definitive volume on the subject matter, and he sold many of his slides to colleges and universities. Bentley even sold 200 of his negatives to Tiffany’s in New York City, which used the snow crystal patterns in its jewelry designs. Bentley was also an early proponent of the theory that no two snowflakes were exactly alike, and his method to photograph snowflakes is still followed today, despite advancements in photography.

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