Raised on a farm in Jericho, Vermont, Wilson Alwyn Bentley became fascinated with the crystalline patterns of snowflakes at a young age.
As a teenager, he began trying to sketch the delicate formations with the aid of an old microscope, but found them melting or sublimating into vapor before he could draw them in any detail.
After much tinkering, Bentley devised a way to connect his microscope to the bellows of a large-format view camera, and finally captured a photograph of a complete snowflake on January 15, 1885.
He photographed over 5,000 more snowflakes over the following decades, capturing each crystal on a microscope slide backed by black velvet, working quickly to capture a photo before it disappeared.
Bentley’s life’s work was ultimately published in a 2,500-photo monograph and helped illustrate how no two snowflakes are alike.
The formation of each crystal is affected by the unique atmospheric conditions that each individual flake passes through on its journey down to earth, with minuscule changes in temperature, humidity and other factors determining whether a snowflake grows into a spiny urchin or a flat plate.
Each snowflake was, in Bentley’s words, a “tiny miracle of beauty.”
His affinity for all things frosty eventually caught up with Bentley. In 1931, he died of pneumonia after walking six miles home in a blizzard.