Winter Forecast: Art to Blanket Region


When it comes to photography, a Wilson Bentley image can be described much like his favorite subject, the snowflake: Each is one of a kind. After all, the Vermont farmer was the first to ever photograph one.

Bentley began photographing snowflakes in 1885, and managed to immortalize more than 5,000 crystals before his death in 1931. Still, the images are widely recognized and highly sought after.

“When I first encountered Wilson A. Bentley’s work, I was in a gallery and I was smitten with them,” says Carl Hammer, who seized the opportunity to show 30 of Bentley’s icy images in his Chicago gallery. “When I heard the words ‘Snowflake Bentley,’ it was like an epiphany — just wow, that’s the perfect thing to do, and I was all over it.”

At the age of 19, “Snowflake” Bentley jury-rigged a microscope to a bulky bellows camera and took the first-ever photograph of a snowflake. Photography then, particularly microphotography, was much closer to science than art. “I think he bridged that gap,” Hammer claims. “[He] knew and recognized in the elements of nature a beauty that he was revealing, and therefore I think he can very well claim it as his art.”

Indeed, Bentley saw his microphotographs as more than scientific contribution. In a 1910 article published in the journal Technical World, he wrote, “Here is a gem bestrewn realm of nature possessing the charm of mystery, of the unknown, sure richly to reward the investigator.”

This deep appreciation for his subject spanned Bentley’s lifetime, says Hammer, who last week showed two dozen of Bentley’s microphotographs at a benefit for the American Folk Art Museum in New York. “He carried to a level where people would not only respect the scientific exploration being conducted, but the beauty and organic splendor of the work he was doing….It had an honesty to it, and I think that’s what makes it so desirable even today. It has this sort of straight-forward passion that’s revealed in what he’s doing.”