On Saturday we had our first snow here in Salem; by Sunday it was gone. I was very happy to see it and hope to see more: last year, we had no snow in the winter, not a flake. There was the Halloween storm on my birthday (while a month or so ago my birthday fell on Superstorm Sandy, or vice-versa: what is the cosmos trying to tell me?) So this year, I”d like a white winter: not the huge, towering snowbanks of winters past, but just a little snow on the ground. Here are a few photographs of my garden and downtown, with barely a whisper on the ground.
As you can see, where there was no grass, there was no snow. Not much of a display for New England, but I’m a little desperate as it has been a while. When I feel like waxing rhapsodic about snowflakes, I always conjure up the charming images from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), but I think I’ve already done that once or twice on this blog. So instead, I want to focus on another man, several centuries later, who was similarly obsessed with snowflakes: Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865-1931), a pioneer in photomicrography. Bentley was a self-taught farmer from Jericho, Vermont who developed a process by which snowflakes could be photographed before they melted; he captured over 5000 images, demonstrating (like Hooke before him) that no two snowflakes were alike. Bentley was so taken with the singular, fleeting beauty of snow crystals, that he strove to capture them forever, on film, and first did so in 1885. Just after his death, about half of his images were published in a book entitled Snow Crystals (1931) which was republished by Dover in 1962. You can also see many his images at sites maintained by the University of Wisconsin and the Jericho Historical Society, as well as a few other places. Apart from their scientific and photographic value, Bentley’s images are just simply beautiful. Washington photographer Theodor Horydczak was inspired by Bentley to create his own grouped snowflake images, but I think I prefer the singular sensations.
Wilson Alwyn Bentley with his special microscope/camera in Vermont; lantern slides of two of his captured crystals, c. 1910, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Theodor Horydczak photograph, 1920, Library of Congress.