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.

This Mobile Art Museum Is Visiting Every Neighborhood in New Orleans

NOMA
NOMA

Whether a museum specializes in art, history, or giant shoes, it tends to have a fixed address. The New Orleans Museum of Art is challenging that norm. As Hyperallergic reports, NOMA is expanding its reach to new neighborhoods with help from a traveling art trailer.

The mobile museum, dubbed NOMA+, lacks many of the features museum-goers take for granted. Instead of a Greek facade complete with towering columns, the outside of the tiny museum takes the form of a plain white shipping trailer. When it's parked, the unit folds out to include a ramp and two decks with blue awnings, erasing the need for doors and walls.

The brick-and-mortar NOMA charges $12 admission for adults, and offers free admission for Louisiana residents on Wednesdays, but regardless of the ticket price, the museum isn't equally accessible to everyone. For some, the time and cost it takes to get there is more than they can afford. Others might be intimated by the building's imposing architecture, or more generally, the art world's history of catering to a largely white and wealthy crowd.

With NOMA+, the museum plans to make stops throughout the greater New Orleans area. The pop-up's first project, #EverydayNewOrleans, a collaboration with the nonprofit Everyday Projects and the New Orleans Photo Alliance, invites community members to participate in photography workshops and use disposable cameras and smartphones to snap photos of the city. Images selected from the workshops are displayed as part of Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories, an exhibition running at NOMA until September 16.

So far, NOMA+ has set up shop at schools, community centers, and service organizations in six New Orleans communities. NOMA hopes to eventually bring the roaming museum to all 72 neighborhoods in the greater metro area.

NOMA+ Time Lapse Open from New Orleans Museum of Art on Vimeo.

[h/t Hyperallergic]

Worried About Getting Duped by Fake Photos? Try This Browser Plug-In

iStock
iStock

It’s easier than ever to get fooled online, especially by photos. Sophisticated editing can make doctored images look like legitimate photojournalism, and a surprising number of the viral images that show up in our social media feeds are at best misleadingly taken out of context, and at worst, completely doctored. But if you’re not a Photoshop expert, you may not be able to tell. That’s where SurfSafe comes in. The new browser extension helps flag fake or misleading images as you surf the web, as Wired reports.

Available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers, SurfSafe allows users to cross-reference where photos have shown up before online. It compares images with similar photos from news organizations, fact-checking sites, and reports from its users to determine whether you should trust what you’re seeing.

It flags images as either “safe,” “warning,” or “unsafe” depending on whether there are other versions of the photo out there that show a substantially different image and whether it’s been the subject of any controversy. When you click on the magnifying glass in the right-hand corner of an image, a window will appear in the right-hand corner of your tab aggregating instances where that image or something similar has shown up elsewhere on the web.

Two side-by-side images of SurfSafe's warning alert
Screenshot, SurfSafe

When you enable SurfSafe, you can choose to mark a number of sources as “safe,” including TV news networks like ABC and CBS, wire services like Reuters, papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and websites like Slate and Ars Technica. Wired reports that the extension also checks more than 100 other sites, including dedicated fact-checking sites like Snopes.

But some of the sources you’re allowed to mark as “safe” aren’t entirely reputable themselves. The list includes sites that have a well-known reputation for being unreliable, like The Daily Mail—whose standards for factual accuracy are so low that Wikipedia no longer allows it as a source. Presumably, if an image is cross-checked against 100 other sites as well, the extension will be able to flag a misleading photo, but it still seems like an odd choice for a fact-checking plug-in regardless.

SurfSafe 'Report an Image' window
Screenshot, SurfSafe

The browser extension just launched, so the developers may still be working some kinks out. During my trial run, the extension sometimes lagged and failed to finish analyzing particular images. Other times it incorrectly reported that an image had not been spotted on any other site, though a reverse-image search on Google turned up plenty of hits for the same photo.

Eventually, the more people who use SurfSafe, the bigger its database of verified and flagged images will grow, in theory making its results more and more accurate. Even with its shortcomings, unless you dedicate yourself to becoming an eagle-eyed Photoshop expert and news junkie, it’s probably your best chance at navigating the often-murky world of viral images without falling for a hoax.

[h/t Wired]

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