Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives
'Snow Crystals': How history's first photos of snowflakes were made
In 1885, American farmer Wilson Bentley attached a camera to his microscope and took what is believed to be the very first photo of a snowflake.
Although the images sold for just five cents at the time, they are now regarded as having helped shape the world of science photography. With their delicate symmetry and unique crystalline structures, snowflakes have since become the subject of fascination for photographers.
But Bentley's groundbreaking images resulted from two years of experimenting with aperture, light, exposure and focus, according to Sue Richardson, his great-grandniece who grew up hearing about 'Uncle Willy.'
"He was so far ahead of his time with his research and photography, which were all self-taught," she said in a phone interview.
A scientific approach
Bentley's experiments began with a microscope that his mother bought for his 15th birthday. Growing up in freezing Vermont, Bentley would identify snowflakes that he liked, before brushing the others away with a turkey feather. He would then transfer the snowflake onto a microscope slide, holding his breath to prevent his specimen from melting in the warmth.
Eventually, Bentley found a way to affix his camera to the microscope -- a basic setup that made his achievements all the more impressive, according Michael Peres, a professor of biomedical photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
"Snowflake photography is a challenging task of isolating, preserving, focusing and lighting a minute crystalline structure," Peres said in a phone interview. "Bentley worked with primitive materials, which makes his work even more appreciated. Early photographic materials were coarse in terms of their sensitivity and tonal ability to discriminate details."
Technological limitations posed another challenge -- Bentley would have to wait until spring before it was warm enough to develop the photos in his woodshed. But he was captivated by what emerged.
In a 1904 article published in The Christian Herald entitled, "The wonders and beauties of snow," Bentley wrote: "The snow crystals ... come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in nature but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades but to come again."
A snowflake database
After successfully creating his breakthrough photographs -- the first of 5,000 that he went on to capture -- Bentley was eager to share his discovery with the world. In 1904, he approached the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Langley, with 500 of his best images.
Bentley's photographs, along with his detailed records and journals, were of immediate interest, according to Pamela Henson, a historian at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
"The Smithsonian had been studying the weather since the 1840s, and was already recruiting volunteers to collect weather observations across the country for a meteorological project," she said in a phone interview. "And Wilson Bentley -- in the fear that his photos might get lost in the fire -- wanted to make sure that they were well preserved."
Universities and colleges around the world began taking an interest in the images, and Bentley obliged by selling slides of his negatives for 5 cents a piece. Motivated by passion more than profit, he would keep the price fixed throughout his lifetime.
In 1931, the United States Weather Bureau (now known as the National Weather Service) published Bentley's research and 2,600 of his photographs in a book titled "Snow Crystals," which he co-wrote with the American physicist William Jackson Humphreys. The collection was accompanied by detailed accounts of the conditions in which the photographs were taken, helping to popularize microphotography as a genre.
"That's when (his photography) began to help society," Peres said. "It not only appreciates beauty and science, but also preserves science in a way that they can be studied later."
Evolution of an art form
Bentley's work has helped pave the way generations of scientific photographers. Today, snowflake images have been greatly enhanced by new technology, like multi-angle cameras that can track the crystals as they fall through the air.
By modifying humidity, temperature and airflow, physics professor Kenneth Libbrecht, has been exploring how cloud conditions determine the structure of each snow crystal. He has developed methods for creating and analyzing snowflakes in his own purpose-built chamber at the California Institute of Technology.
Libbrecht's collection of more than 10,000 snowflake photographs has, in turn, inspired Russian photographer Alexey Kljatov. The 42-year-old modified a point-and-shoot Canon into a digital macro camera with enhanced magnification and the ability to automatically refocus in between rapid bursts of photos. He uses it to build pictures with multiple layers, resulting in intimately sharp and graphic images.
"(Technology) has profound implications," Peres said. "It's fascinating how you are the only person who would ever see that (particular snowflake). It disappears in a second and you just made a record of something that doesn't exist anymore."
While the underlying techniques have changed little since Bentley's days, snowflake photography is increasingly accessible to amateur photographers. Phone apps and attachable lenses have made it easier than ever to isolate and photograph snowflakes.
But for Richardson, the advent of technology has had another unexpected benefit -- renewed interest in her great-granduncle's work.
"He was under-appreciated during his lifetime, but with the surge of the internet, people have come across Wilson Bentley and learned about him," she said.