Snowflake Bentley


William A. Bentley with his snowflake camera from the Wikicommons original source
and in the public domain.

We cannot discuss the origins of photomicroscopy without mentioning the work of William A. Bentley (aka the Snowflake man)(1865-1831). Bentley was a self-taught Vermont farmer.  At age fifteen Bentley developed an interest in snowflakes. He learned to capture them beneath the lens of a microscope and tried to draw them in all their beautiful and unique detail. But he found that they melted before he could complete a drawing. If you think about it these are the most ephemeral of objects. Photomicrosopy was the obvious solution, but it still took Bentley two years to develop a camera and methodology.


Figure 2 – one of William A. Bentley’s snowflake photographs from http://snowflakebentley
snowflakes.htm and in the public domain

Today, of course, we recognize that this is an example of macrophotography.  With a 35 mm camera we would want to “blow up” the snowflake two or three times.  For a view camera this is more extreme, and that makes the required exposure somewhat demanding.  But for Bentley, it was all worth the effort.

Today, we learn as children that no two snowflakes are alike.  It was William A. Bentley, who made that discovery.  Today, as physicists, we are taught that this random uniqueness is characteristic of what we call fractal processes.  We should never dismiss the fundamental beauty of nature – even in its most fleeting processes.  Bentley recognized this important point.  He wrote profoundly in 1925:

“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.”

Bentley died in 1931 after contracting pneumonia in a blizzard.  But this was not before he left us a very rich legacy of some of the finest and most emotion filled photomicrographs ever created see Figure 2).


This entry was posted in History of Photography.

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  1. By Growing snowflakes | Hati and Skoll Gallery on March 6, 2014 at 6:35 am

    […] while back we discussed the work of Snowflake Bentley who pioneered the technique of photographing snowflakes.  And if ever there was a place that the […]