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"Marvel of the Snow Gems"
Microphotographs of Snow and Ice Crystals by Wilson A. Bentley

January 24 - March 9, 2011


bentley image

 

"Marvel of the Snow Gems"
Microphotographs of Snow and Ice Crystals by Wilson A. Bentley

January 24 – March 9, 2011

In every shovelful of snow that I lift and throw, there are hundreds of thousands of crystals - each exquisitely delicate and unique in its expression of molecular properties of water and its evolution in our dynamic, complex atmosphere.  Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931), was a farmer in Jericho, Vermont, who devoted his life to photographing snow and ice crystals “… because of their great beauty and diversity of form, and because so much mystery of the unknown enshrouded these exquisite crystals from cloudland.”  He looked forward to every snowstorm, worked for hours in the cold, and kept careful and detailed weather journals because the crystals convinced him that, “There seemed to be a delightful and gem-bestrewn realm of nature awaiting exploration and discovery.”

The snow and ice crystals and raindrops he photographed and measured were his messengers from the

“mysterious and then but little known cloud and mistland above” that we now explore with weather balloons, airplanes, and satellites.  And yet all our technology comes back to what Bentley demonstrated so well, that science -- like music, art and writing -- is accomplished in the details.  Only with each of us attending to the details of our particular exploration and sharing what we discover there, can we all continually grow in our knowledge of the world and come to recognize that we live surrounded by incredible beauty and wonder.

- Aileen O’Donoghue, Priest Associate Professor of Physics

 

Bentley’s life in Jericho focused on perfecting the techniques for photographing ice crystals or snowflakes. He used a combination bellows camera and microscope to capture the ice crystals or snow flakes, and in 1885 became the first person to photograph a crystal.  To photograph the crystals, he would let snowflakes fall on a black board, select one as a promising subject, and then quickly transfer it to a microscope slide for photography before it melted or sublimated.

In 1931, he published Snow Crystals, which contained more than 2,400 images.   He published the photographs in magazines as well, including National Geographic, Nature, Popular Science, and Scientific American.  In his lifetime, he photographed over 5,000 images of ice crystals, and expanded his interests to include photography of frost, clouds, and fog.
Although it was not financially rewarding, Bentley found microphotography of the crystals satisfying in itself, knowing that he was contributing to the understanding of crystals and their structures, and that he was able to share “these tiny miracles of beauty” with others. 

 

The exhibition includes original vintage microphotographs, as well as glass lantern slides dating from the era.  The five crystals on the front of the card were photographed at outdoor temperatures ranging from -15 to 30 degrees F.  The photograph of men with sleds is part of SLU's Vance Archives and documents "Yukon Day," 1960.

yukon day 1960

Yukon Day, St. Lawrence University, 1960,
courtesy of Special Collections and the Vance University Archives

Quotes are from Wilson A. Bentley's "Marvel of the Snow Gems" (1910).  

Special thanks to Wayne Howe and Ray Moglionico at the Jericho Historical Society and Eleazor D. Durfee for their help with the exhibition.  For information on Bentley and reproductions of his work, visit snowflakebentley.com.