Wilson Bentley’s Snow Crystals

By Christina Z. Anderson Back to

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“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

Wilson Bentley, 1925

Over a century ago a nineteen-year-old Vermont farm boy named Wilson Alwyn Bentley began a 46-year love affair with the typology of snow crystals. A century after Bentley, I began a love affair with the historic bleach-etch process and at the same time came upon Bentley’s snow crystal book. Bentley’s beautiful snow crystals swimming in a sea of black were ripe for this bleach-etch process. How was I to make this happen, since these images were not my own?

The bleach-etch process is more difficult to explain than to demonstrate. The process, was initially used to turn film negatives into positives for lantern slide projection. A Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Sudre turned the process into an art form on photographic paper instead of film. Sudre originated the exotic name ‘mordançage’ and ‘bleach-etch’ was lost to history.

In the mordançage process an acid-copper bleaching solution first bleaches and then dissolves a gelatin silver image. It leaves the print in a reverse relief. The dissolving occurs proportionately to the darks—the darker the area, the more dissolution occurs, accompanied by an intriguing raised relief and a beautiful veiling phenomenon. I knew that Bentley’s snowflake images with their black backgrounds would produce a veiling that would be a fitting visual metaphor for both the floating motion of a snowflake and its ephemeral nature. Since mordançage produces one-of-a-kind prints, how much more fitting to a snowflake’s uniqueness.

Bentley’s images fascinated me, but so did Bentley himself. He was born on February 7, 1865. He was a self-educated farmer, home schooled by his mother until fourteen. His mother was responsible for his passion. She had a microscope under which Bentley viewed his very first snow crystals. Bentley’s original intent was to draw each one in the short span of time between capture and melting, but that was fairly difficult as can be imagined.

Enter the invention of dry plate photography in the early 1880s. Dry plates allowed a photographer to take a photograph, put aside the negative and develop it at a later date. This was perfect timing for Bentley. He could collect crystals in a session and develop later. He collected the crystals on a small black board, transferred them to a microscopic slide, and exposed each negative from 30-300 seconds with window light as his source. He did all of this, for 46 years, in an unheated wood shed in frigid Vermont winters.

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Bentley made his first snow crystal photograph on January 15, 1885, his last on March 1, 1931. He photographed a total of 5,381 snowflakes with this very same camera. Because of Bentley we know that no two snowflakes are exactly alike.

Bentley’s working method was to make a copy negative on which he scraped away the emulsion background around the snowflake down to the clear glass plate. This took one hour of intricate handiwork per plate. This resulted in Bentley’s characteristic black background around the snow crystal when exposed onto photographic paper. Bentley’s book Snow Crystals came out in 1931, and that very same year on December 23, Bentley died an untimely death at 66 from pneumonia. This unassuming man did not seek medical care for his illness, which might have been successfully treated.

In 1947, sixteen years after Bentley’s death, the Bentley glass plate negative collection was transferred to the Buffalo Museum of Science in Buffalo New York. Between the Buffalo Museum of Science, the Jericho Historical Society museum and website, and historians such as Duncan C. Blanchard, Bentley’s character and life’s work have been well preserved and accessible to the public (see vermontsnowflakes.com from which much of the information in this article comes unless otherwise footnoted).

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The investigation into snow crystals continues, now eased with state-of-the-art digital equipment requiring less physical rigor. We now know that a snowflake is not really frozen water, but frozen vapor that condenses directly into ice, and that the hexagonal structure of a snowflake is due to the geometry of water molecules and how they connect. Snowflakes can be three, six, or twelve sided but never four, five, seven, or eight-sided—the latter being the typical paper snowflake one cuts in kindergarten rooms across the country. Scientific and digital advances have answered many questions and produced images of rainbow-colored glory. I still prefer Bentley’s stark, primitive beauty.

Bentley was a focused man who lived his passion until he died. I have a passion, too. My passion is 19th Century photographic processes, in the 21st Century when these processes are anachronistic and too timeconsuming to be cost-productive. This past year I was granted permission by the Jericho Historical Society to use Bentley’s images. I was finally able to combine my photographic passion with Bentley’s.

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With Bentley’s digitized archive I made contact-sized negatives to print 52 unique gelatin silver prints. When finished in the darkroom, it was out to the garage, like Bentley, to subject the prints to the caustic chemical mordançage process. In my case, though, the process works best with heat, not cold. And in my case, the sun is a good thing: it can be utilized to produce different colors on a normally monochromatic black and white paper. The blacks and browns are achieved by various mixtures of paper developer, thiocarbamide and selenium toners, and serendipitous chemical exhaustion and/or contamination; the maroons, lavenders, pinks and terra cottas are sun-created.

Placement of veils is both a matter of chance and laborious use of cotton balls, Q-tips, fingers, eyedroppers filled with water, spray bottles, rounded surfaces provided by cans of various sizes to enable the veils to flow out and down and any other guerrilla-garage methods and tools I can find, including holding my breath and prayer.

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Does the mordançage process add more beauty to what is already nature’s (and Bentley’s) work of art in and of itself? This is a question for the viewer, because obviously I will answer it with a resounding “Yes.” Mordançage is an odd, contemporary beauty of a dark sort, fitting in this age where perfect beauty is thought to be passé and perhaps a bit cloying. I revel in the fact that there is no way to achieve an effective mordançage digitally—yet. Until that happens, out to the garage I go.

As Bentley expressed in the quote at the beginning of this article, what a waste it is when a snowflake melts and all the beauty contained therein is gone. The reader can allow me a bit of poetic fancifulness: I imagine that somewhere “out there” Bentley is watching me work with his snow crystals he so painstakingly created and I am so painstakingly expressing. I imagine him smiling because his work continues to spread. More likely, he is chuckling to find yet one more kindred spirit bitten with the bug that he once caught, this obsession to grab hold of and typologize a beauty that is all the same but oh so very different.


About the Author

Christina Z. Anderson
CZANderson2
Christina Z. Anderson is an assistant professor of Photography at Montana State University, Bozeman, where she teaches alternative and experimental process photography. Her two books, The Experimental Photography Workbook, and Alternative Processes, Condensed, have sold around the world. In the works is a comprehensive book on gum bichromate. Her work has been exhibited internationally and nationally in 65 shows and 24 states. Visit her online at christinazanderson.com.