Huffpost New York

Wilson A. Bentley's Snowflake Photos Up For Auction

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NEW YORK — Vermont farmer Wilson A. Bentley was known as Snowflake Bentley for his pioneering 19th-century photography of more than 5,000 jewel-like snowflakes – no two alike.

Bentley, also known as The Snowflake Man, was fascinated with snowflakes, and his observations and experimentation made him the first person to capture a single snowflake with a camera.

Starting Thursday, 26 of his images are for sale at the four-day American Antiques Show presented by the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Ten of the images are of snowflakes, which he called snow crystals, and are priced at $4,800 each. The others show winter scenes.

They are being offered by Carl Hammer, whose Chicago art gallery is showing 20 other Bentley photographs.

"They're remarkably beautiful," Hammer said. "There are imperfections on the outer edges of the image itself and on the paper, but the images themselves are quite spectacular."

The technology Bentley used became known as photomicrography.

The year was 1885. By jury-rigging a microscope with a bellows camera, Bentley was able to capture for the first time the exquisite delicacy of a snowflake. His groundbreaking 1931 book, "Snow Crystals," recorded for posterity the beauty, fragility and lacy designs of 2,500 snowflakes.

"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," Bentley said 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."

Weeks after the book's publication, Bentley, walking through a blizzard, caught pneumonia and died. Despite his groundbreaking work, which led to significant contributions to photography and science, Bentley's name remains largely unknown to the public.

His images don't often come on the market. The international Paris Photo show last year had a few pieces, said Hammer, "but they're fairly rare."

Bentley's photos don't meet modern standards because he was "working with crude equipment," said Kenneth G. Libbrecht, who has written seven books on snowflakes and grows snow crystals in a laboratory.

"But he did it so well that hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years," said Libbrecht, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology.

When Libbrecht became interested in snowflakes, he said, Bentley was still the standard. The method of singling out a crystal to photograph hasn't changed in all that time.

"You basically let the crystal fall on something, black or dark-colored, and then you have to pick it up with a toothpick or brush and put it on a glass slide," Libbrecht said.

The American Folk Art Museum's senior curator, Stacy Hollander, said she learned of Bentley only last year while mounting an exhibition of American quilts by Paula Nadelstern, who has produced a series of quilts inspired by Bentley's microphotographs. The museum borrowed six Bentley photographs from a New York gallery to complement the exhibition.

"There was a real sense of discovery on my part when Paula introduced me to the images and on the part of the museum visitors who were discovering these images for the first time," Hollander said.

But in Bentley's hometown, Jericho, Vt., about 30 miles northwest of Montpelier, he's a household name. A museum is dedicated to his life's work at an old mill that houses about 2,000 of his vintage images.

Hollander said Bentley's images possess a folk-like quality, which she described as "idiosyncratic, self-motivated and innovative."

Bentley was a self-taught scientist and artist whose singular obsession with the snowflake's infinite variety extended to how it was formed, she said. It was Bentley who suggested that ice crystals were formed depending upon temperature and location in a snowstorm, she said, calling his contribution to science "truly significant."

"Everyone's fascinated by snow," Hollander said. "It's just magical, and he captured that magic in these beautiful photomicrographs."

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On the Net:

Snowflake Bentley Museum: http://www.snowflakebentley.com/museum.htm