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Masters of Photography - Wilson 'Snowflake' Bentley




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Published on Dec 16, 2008

The Jericho Historical Society
The Buffalo Museum of Science (biography):
The Buffalo Museum of Science (photography Process):

Wilson Alwyn "Snowflake" Bentley (February 7, 1865 - December 23, 1931), born at Jericho in the U.S. state of Vermont, is the first known photographer of snowflakes. He perfected a process of catching flakes on black velvet in such a way that their images could be captured before they either melted or sublimated.

He first became interested in snow crystals as a teenager on his family farm. He tried to draw what he saw through an old microscope given to him by his mother when he was fifteen. The snowflakes were too complex to record before they melted, so he attached a bellows camera to a compound microscope and, after much experimentation, photographed his first snowflake on January 15, 1885.
He would capture over 5000 images of crystals in his lifetime. Each crystal was caught on a blackboard and transferred rapidly to a microscope slide. Even at subzero temperatures, snowflakes are ephemeral because they sublimate. Bentley's work can be seen as occupying the intersection of the arts and the sciences.

Bentley poetically described snowflakes as "tiny miracles of beauty" and snow crystals as "ice flowers."

Bentley's work gained attention in the last few years of the nineteenth century. Harvard Mineralogical Museum acquired some of his photomicrographs. In collaboration with George Henry Perkins, professor of natural history at the University of Vermont, Bentley published an article in which he argued that no two snowflakes were alike. This concept caught the public imagination and he published other articles in magazines, including National Geographic, Nature, Popular Science, and Scientific American. His photographs were requested by academic institutions worldwide.

In 1931 Bentley worked with William J. Humphreys of the U.S. Weather Bureau to publish Snow Crystals, a monograph illustrated with 2,500 photographs.
Bentley also photographed all forms of ice and natural water formations including clouds and fog. He was the first American to record raindrop sizes and was one of the first cloud physicists.

He died of pneumonia at his farm on December 23, 1931.

The broadest collection of Bentley's photographs is held by the Jericho Historical Society ( in his home town, Jericho, Vermont.
Bentley donated his collection of original glass-plate photomicrographs of snow crystals to the Buffalo Museum of Science ( A portion of this collection has been digitized and organized into a digital library (

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