Wilson A. Bentley: The Man Who Photographed Snowflakes

How do you photograph a snowflake? It’s an easy enough question, but one that throws up a host of problems. For one, how do you capture one single snowflake, without crushing or damaging it? Secondly, how do you keep it from melting long enough to get it in front of a camera lens? And even then, how on earth do you guarantee that you’ll be able to see it in any kind of detail?

Despite all those difficulties, one man not only managed to photograph a snowflake in astonishingly beautiful detail, but he did so more than 100 years ago—and went on to produce such an impressive library of snowflake images that his research is credited with establishing the theory that no two snowflakes are alike.

Wilson Alwyn “Willie” Bentley was born on a small farmstead in Jericho, Vermont, on February 9, 1865. His mother, a former schoolteacher, owned a microscope which she had used in her lessons and which Bentley—who had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge fueled by reading his mother’s entire set of encyclopedias as a child—soon became fascinated by. But alongside the fragments of stones and birds’ feathers that Bentley collected and observed through his microscope, from an early age his curiosity landed on one subject: snowflakes.

Photo of snowflakes by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Working during the winter from a freezing cold room at the back of the family farmhouse, Bentley would collect airborne ice crystals on the microscope’s slide, and quickly work to focus on them before they began to melt or lose their shape. In the early days of his work, he simply recorded the countless different shapes and forms he saw by drawing them as best he could in a notebook. But knowing full well that these rough sketches were no substitute for the astonishing complexity that he saw under his microscope, he soon sought other ways to record what he discovered.

Bentley asked his father for a bellows camera—an early type of still camera, with a pleated, accordion-like body that could be used to alter the distance between the lens and the photographic plate—and with no photographic training himself, attached a microscope lens. What followed was a long and immensely frustrating period of trial and error, with innumerable failed attempts along the way. But finally, during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, Bentley succeeded in taking a single perfect image. He later wrote:

The day that I developed the first negative made by this method, and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshipping it! It was the greatest moment of my life.

Bentley is now credited with taking the earliest known photograph of a single snowflake in the history of photography. He was just shy of 20 years old at the time—and he wasn’t done yet.

Photo of a snowflake by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For more than a decade, he continued to perfect not only his photographic skills, but his snowflake-collecting technique too. Working swiftly (and mainly outside) to avoid the risk of them melting or evaporating, Bentley would collect the snowflakes on a tray, covered with a swatch of black velvet, that he would leave outside during bad weather. Individual snowflakes could then be transferred onto a pre-chilled glass microscope slide using a small wooden peg, where they could be photographed in astonishing detail. Bentley eventually amassed a library of several hundred snowflake images—and as word spread of his work, it soon attracted the attention of scientists at the nearby University of Vermont.

George Henry Perkins, a professor of natural history and the official state geologist of Vermont [PDF], persuaded Bentley to write, with his assistance, an article outlining both his method of photographing snowflakes, and his groundbreaking findings. Although initially reluctant (Bentley was an introverted character, and reportedly believed his modest home-schooling could not possibly have led to him discovering anything that wasn’t already known to science), he eventually agreed, and in May 1898 published A Study of Snow Crystals. In it, Bentley’s writing shows just how passionate he was about his subject:

A careful study of this internal structure not only reveals new and far greater elegance of form than the simple outlines exhibit, but by means of these wonderfully delicate and exquisite figures much may be learned of the history of each crystal, and the changes through which it has passed in its journey through cloudland. Was ever life history written in more dainty hieroglyphics!

Several more articles in ever more weighty publications—including Harper’s Monthly, Popular Mechanics, and even National Geographic—followed, and soon Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley’s astonishing research became known nationwide. He began giving talks and lectures on his work all over the country, and slides of his astounding snowflake photographs were sold all across America to schools and colleges, museums, and even jewelers and fashion designers looking for inspiration for their latest creations. And throughout it all, Bentley continued to work.

Photo of a snowflake by Wilson A. Bentley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

But not without controversy. When, in 1892, a German scientist named Gustav Hellmann asked a colleague to photograph snowflakes, the resulting flake photos were nowhere near as gorgeous or symmetrical as Bentley's. Eventually, Hellmann accused Bentley of manipulating his photographs. According to New Scientist [PDF]:

"What is clear is that Bentley gave his white-on-white images a black background by scraping the emulsion off the negatives around the outline of each snowflake. But did he sometimes scrape away asymmetries too? Hellmann claimed he had 'mutilated the outlines,' and Bentley’s defense of his methods is not entirely reassuring. 'A true scientist wishes above all to have his photographs as true to nature as possible, and if retouching will help in this respect, then it is fully justified.'"

Though their feud raged on for decades, Bentley never changed his methods of photographing snowflakes. And though he expanded his studies during warmer weather to include investigations into the structure and formation of dew, mist, and rainfall—he even proposed radical meteorological theories linking raindrop size to different storm types [PDF] and devised a way to measure the size of raindrops that involved letting them hit a tray containing a layer of sifted flour, then weighing the ball of paste each raindrop produced as it hit—Bentley’s first love always remained the same. Having continued his painstaking research, by the 1920s he had amassed a gallery of more than 5000 snowflake images, some 2400 of which were selected for publication in a book, Snow Crystals, in 1931.

Later that year, however, his work finally got the better of him: After walking six miles home during a blinding blizzard, Bentley caught pneumonia and died at the family home in Jericho on December 23, 1931. He left his extraordinary library of photomicrographs to his brother Charlie, whose daughter donated them to the Buffalo Museum of Science in New York in 1947.

Take a Digital Tour of America’s Vintage Roadside Stops

The Coney Island Dairyland food stand, Aspen, Colorado, 1980.
The Coney Island Dairyland food stand, Aspen, Colorado, 1980.
John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Before GPS, road-tripping Americans canvassing the country’s freshly paved roadway system in the early part of the 20th century had to rely on gas station maps to find diners and other pit stops. Alternately, they could just keep their eyes peeled for one of the thousands of unique buildings that were designed so speeding motorists could easily identify what they had to offer.

Along the famous Route 66, writes author Richard Ratay in his road trip memoir Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, were “colossal fiberglass ‘people attractors:’ giant hotdogs, guns, pies, cow heads, ice cream cones, and other items associated with the goods each proprietor was hawking.” Other places tried to stand out to passing tourists by offering variations on the “world’s biggest” motif, like the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, Illinois.

These giant donuts, whales, tea pots, and other distinctive stops were shot for decades by photographer John Margolies, who made it his life’s work to capture these stucco slices of Americana before they disappeared. The Library of Congress first began acquiring portions of Margolies's archive in 2007 and started digitizing those images after Margolies died in 2016. The result of their efforts is an expansive—and totally free—online scrapbook of 11,710 color photos.

The Teapot Dome in Zillah, Washington is pictured
The Teapot Dome, Zillah, Washington, 1987.

The Hat 'N Boots gas station in Seattle, Washington is pictured
The Hat 'N Boots gas station, Seattle, Washington, 1980.

The Whale Car Wash in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is pictured
The Whale Car Wash, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1980.

The Donut Hole in La Puente, California is pictured
The Donut Hole, La Puente, California, 1991.

The Flamingo Drive-In Theater in Hobbs, New Mexico is pictured
The Flamingo Drive-In Theater, Hobbs, New Mexico, 1982.

Born in 1940, Margolies took frequent road trips with his parents. An architectural critic, he began photographing the roadside attractions in 1969, continuing the work through 2008. While many of these places have shuttered, their creative exteriors live on through Margolies’s lens. You can browse the rest of the collection at the Library of Congress website.

All images courtesy of the John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

[h/t designboom]

Photographer Captures Polka-Dotted Zebra Foal in Kenya

Frank Liu
Frank Liu

Zebras are known for their eye-catching patterns, but this polka-dotted foal recently photographed in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve really stands out from the herd. As National Geographic reports, the zebra baby likely has pseudomelanism, a rare pigment condition that's been observed in the wild just a handful of times.

Nature photographer Frank Liu saw the zebra foal while looking for rhinos in the savannah wilderness preserve. After initially confusing the specimen for a different type of animal, he realized upon closer inspection that it was actually a plains zebra born with spots instead of stripes. The newborn foal was named Tira after the Maasai guide Antony Tira who first pointed him out.

Zebra foal with spots walking with mother.
Frank Liu

Zebra foal with spots.
Frank Liu

A typical zebra pattern is the result of pigment cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for the black base coat, and melanin, which gives the animal its white stripes. (So if you've ever wondered if zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes, the answer is the latter). In Tira and other zebras with pseudomelanism, the melanocytes are fully expressed, but a genetic mutation causes the melanin to appear as dots rather than unbroken stripes.


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Though rare, this isn't the only time a zebra with pseudomelanism has been documented in nature. Pseudomelanistic zebras have also been spotted in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but Liu believes this could be the first time one was found in the Masai Mara preserve.

Zebra stripes aren't just for decoration. The distinct pattern may act as camouflage, bug repellant, and a built-in temperature regulation system. Without these evolutionary benefits, Tira has a lower chance of making it to adulthood: Pseudomelanistic zebra adults are rarely observed for this reason. But as Liu's photographs show, the foal has the protection and acceptance of his herd on his side.

[h/t National Geographic]

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