The Art of the Snowflake
Wilson Bentley's astonishing early 20th-century photographs of snowflakes reveal nature's miniature miracles. VIEW OUR GALLERY of a pioneering master.
As the season’s first flurries descended on Chicago on December 4, the Carl Hammer Gallery fittingly unveiled Snow Crystals: Vintage Photomicrographs, its collection of Wilson A. Bentley’s early 20th-century photographs of snowflakes. “Once I take the show down, there’s not going to be any more snow,” Hammer said of the exhibition’s slated January 30 close after a charmed run during one of Chicago’s whitest winters in years.
Click Image To View Our Gallery Of Wilson Bentley’s Photographs Of Snowflakes
In his lifetime, Bentley produced 5,381 photographs of snow crystals, aptly earning the moniker “Snowflake” and a small sect of followers in the years to come. “It was one of those serendipitous things,” Hammer said of acquiring 26 Bentley snowflake images that he’d been told were cult collectors’ items and very difficult to obtain. Hammer is passionate about the “accidental and totally beautiful” addition to his gallery. “It certainly impresses me when someone can see a macrocosmic perspective of the world in one little snow crystal,” Hammer said of the revolutionary photographer born 145 years ago.
Raised in the small village of Jericho, Vermont (which receives approximately 120 inches of snow annually), Bentley saw beauty on his family’s farm that had escaped most of his neighbors. His mother, a former teacher, homeschooled the boy until he was 14, and inspired his intellectual curiosity by giving him a small microscope. “From the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated me most,” he told his biographer Duncan Blanchard. “The farm folks, up in this north country, dread the winter; but I was supremely happy, from the day of the first snowfall.”
The 17-year-old scientist persuaded his father to buy a bellows camera and was determined to capture nature’s famously unique snowflakes on film. “Every snowflake has an infinite beauty which is enhanced by knowledge that the investigator will, in all probability, never find another exactly like it,” Bentley wrote in Popular Mechanics of his infatuation.
“I specialize in self-taught artists,” explained Carl Hammer, “those who are not creating through an academic frame of reference, but rather from an obsessiveness and compulsiveness to create.” Though Bentley initially lacked the prowess to capture the crystals he admired for over a year, that changed during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885—the day the besotted 19-year-old successfully took the first photomicrographs of a snow crystal using a blackboard and negative, a feat he called “the greatest moment of my life.”
Still, many of those in the small community of Jericho, where snow is unremarkable, didn’t understand Bentley’s contribution to science and photography. The same cannot be said of those in attendance at the American Antiques Show in New York this past weekend, where several of Bentley’s vintage images were on display. Twelve of the 26 photographs sold for $4,800 each.
Hammer’s selection is a mere dusting of the avalanche of photos Bentley took in his lifetime, more than 2,000 of which can be seen in his book Snow Crystals, published in 1931. As his favorite season approached, the then 66-year-old Bentley readied his 46-year-old camera for winter’s first snowfall. But his subject turned on him—a six-mile trek through a blizzard lead to pneumonia, costing Bentley his life on December 23, 1931.
In the 78 years since his death, contemporary photographers with technological advancements have sent their Bentley-inspired images to Hammer. But “it’s not the same,” he said. “There’s a certain kind of charm and seat-of-your pants characteristic missing, like the first astronauts landing on the moon.”
Jaimie Etkin is a culture intern at the Daily Beast.