Bookmarks: Snowflake Bentley

artist book: a work of art realized in the form of a book.

The definition may sound simple, but the world of artist books can be a bewildering place. From the familiar pairing of images and text, to sculptures created out of paper and complicated bindings that create a performance each time the book is opened, nearly anything can be called an artist book if there is intention and consideration. This series showcases artists from different realms of the art world exploring the structure and meaning of the book.

Snow Crystals was first published in 1931 by Wilson Bentley, in collaboration with William J. Humpreys. A monograph featuring over 2,000 photographs of individual snowflakes, Snow Crystals revealed the true shapes of snowflakes to the general public. For the first time, the Americans could study snowflakes as objects of both beauty and scientific inquiry. Bentley’s photographs revealed what we long ago learned as children—that each snow crystal is unique.

Wilson Bently at work

“Snowflake Bentley” was born and raised on a farm in Jericho, Vermont. At the age of 15, he received a microscope from his mother, and he soon became obsessed with the idea of illustrating snowflakes for the public. However, drawing the snowflakes was nearly impossible since they melted far too quickly. Thus, Bentley decided to photograph the snowflakes. He obtained a bellows camera, and he attached it to his microscope. Realizing that he could not look through the viewfinder and make adjustments to the focus of the microscope simultaneously, Bentley created a set of extenders that permitted him to stay behind the camera at all times, while still fine-tuning the microscope.

On January 15, 1885, at the age of 19, Bentley successfully photographed his first snowflake. Over the course of his lifetime, he would photograph more than 5,000. While he is not officially credited with taking the first photograph of a snowflake, his life’s work is unrivaled. A pioneer in photomicrography, Bentley’s photographs were so precise that his images continued to appear in Nature, National Geographic, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Popular Science for decades after his demise. His eye-opening book Snow Crystals is still in print today. His original albumen prints and negatives are owned by the Smithsonian Institute and the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Elizabeth K. Harris is the Director at Louis K. Meisel Gallery. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University and has co-authored two books on art. She likes looking at books more than reading them.