Posts Tagged ‘W. A. Bentley’

This is a repost from a couple of years ago, in honor of today’s snow.

I know a lot of people would say I’m crazy – but I feel a little sad, that winter’s almost over and the snow is melting fast.

What could be more magical than gazing out the window, aimlessly, when suddenly you become aware that the tiniest of white flakes is drifting down from the sky? Slowly, elegantly; and then you see another – but “see” is a word that feels too directed. It’s more like another flake appears, registers on your visual field. It’s so subtle an experience that if you were actually focusing your attention out the window, you might not see the snow falling, at all.

Again, I know that most people think I’m crazy, to feel that little pang at goodbye. The blanket of snow on the lawn has been there for days now, days that have seen the thermometer stuck below 20 degrees. I know the cold can be tiresome. But even after months of cold weather I’m entranced by this sight: the slow drift and float of the solitary snowflake to earth.

In a few weeks I won’t see it again, until next winter. Next winter, when we’ve just battened down the hatches against the cold, when we’re deep in the longest dark of the year; and we look out to see that for the first time in eight or nine months, snow is falling.

Snow is mysterious. It’s frozen water – but it’s nothing like ice. It’s a complicated process, the formation of snow from water vapor, up in the clouds; and the more complex the individual snowflake, the more stages involved in its evolution – a snowflake quite literally “grows.” The delicate structure with which we’re familiar – the lacy snowflake that’s emblazoned on everything from Christmas ornaments to ski sweaters – has been duplicated in the laboratory, using special equipment. However, snow in large quantities is hard to make. The snow-making “cannons” used at ski resorts can’t make snow crystals, but only frozen droplets that look nothing like even simple snowflakes, under a magnifier. (And are a weak substitute to ski on, or so I’m told).

W.A. Bentley was the first person to photograph a snowflake, in 1884. I have a book of his photos – my dad bought it years ago. Titled Snow Crystals, the first edition was published in 1931.  It contains 2,453 photographs of snowflakes (and a few frost patterns).  The intricacy of the patterns on its pages is a marvel – and as you might expect, no two are exactly alike.

Thumbing through the book the other day, it occurred to me that until the science of optics created magnifying lenses, people had no concept of the structure of the individual snowflake.  We didn’t know it existed, this infinite world of beauty.

Mr. Bentley, I discovered, was driven by a similar thought.  A teenager on a Vermont farm when he began his lifelong obsession, he had to first beg his parents to invest in an expensive camera.  Then, through a frustrating process of trial and error, he taught himself how to capture the image of a single snowflake. It took him two seasons to succeed.  He continued to photograph snowflakes, with very little reward or recognition, for the next 47 years.  (He died just weeks after the initial publication of Snow Crystals.)

His motivation was not only scientific curiosity, but a passionate reverence for the beauty of snow.  “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,” he told an interviewer in 1925.  “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.”

So he resolved to be the guardian of that beauty, and its champion. He took over 5,000 photographs, laboring winter after winter in an unheated room in his farmhouse. For most of his life, the public paid very little attention. (In fact, at the first local showing of his photographic slides, he had only six attendees.)

But the lack of recognition didn’t stop him. He truly loved snow – and he had to show it to the world, in a way that they had never seen it before. Surrounded by neighbors who thought of winter as a condition simply to be endured, he had to share with them what he had found – the mysterious, incomparable beauty of snow.

I think like me he must have felt just a tinge of sadness, as spring drew near and the snow began to melt.

Quoted material from interview with W.A. Bentley, The American Magazine, February, 1925.


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