What could be more festive than a Christmas white with snow and ice? What could be more magical than the photographs of snow flakes which were made in the nineteenth century by Wilson Alwyn Bentley?
Born in 1865, 'Snowflake Bentley' was raised on the family farm in Jericho, in the American state of Vermont where the annual snowfall was about 120 inches. From childhood he was fascinated by nature and when, at fifteen, his mother gave him a microscope, he was said to be captivated by the close-up views of snow crystals which he placed upon a black velvet base to see them as clearly as possible. But to try and preserve the sights he saw – with the ice flakes often melting before he could manage to draw their designs – he set his mind to finding a way to attach a camera to the microscope lens (this is called Photomicography, of which Bentley was a pioneer), from then on beginning to compile the body of work which is still today considered as remarkable – combining science with nature and art.
Bentley proved that every snowflake is something quite unique. He poetically describing them as "ice flowers" or “tiny miracles of beauty.” He captured over 5,000 of these ephemeral works of art during the course of his life–time, by the end of which his work was sought by the Harvard Mineralogical Museum and the University of Vermont. Today his photographs are held by academic institutions all over the world. The Smithsonian (to whom he sent 500 prints in 1903 to ensure that they were preserved for the sake of posterity), now keeps that comprehensive record in their institution archives.
His obsession with water in various forms also led him measure raindrops and to photograph forms of frost and dew.
The VV finds it sadly ironic that he died after contracting pneumonia, when he’d walked for six miles through a blizzard of snow to try and find his way back home.
Before Bentley died a book of his snowflake prints was published by McGraw Hill. The book, in various forms, is still available today.