What you see: One of a group of ten images of snowflakes captured between the late 1890s and the 1920s by photographer Wilson Bentley. Sotheby’s estimates the group at $8,000 to $12,000.
The expert: Hermione Sharp, associate specialist in the photographs department at Sotheby’s New York.
Let’s start by talking about Wilson Bentley–who he was, and how he became interested in photographing snowflakes. He was a farmer from Jericho, Vermont. I understand he lived on the farm his whole life. At some point, his mother had a microscope. For his birthday, as a teen, he asked for a better one. He was in Vermont, and he was around snow a lot. Around the age of 20, he wanted to document snowflakes on camera. It took him a while to figure out how to do that. Once he did, he ran with it.
Was he the first to tackle the problem of how to capture snowflakes on film before they melted? More or less. Some had tried here and there, but no one had the interest that he did. He was determined to get good pictures of snowflakes. They melted so quickly, it was hard to do.
How did he solve the problem? He put together an apparatus, a microscope attached to a camera. That’s how he was able to capture the images we see today.
I understand the invention relied on a bellows. What’s a bellows? In 19th century pictures, you’ll see cameras with a long accordion thing at the front. That’s a bellows. That extension allowed him to get to the microscope, to get the image taken through the microscope itself. Later, he added a piece of wood with [attached to] a band of leather to pull the focus back and forth on the microscope.
How did Bentley create these images? He would run around his backyard, catching snowflakes on a piece of velvet. He’d run back to the camera and move the snowflakes around with a feather to get the one he wanted. When he got one he liked, he’d move it onto a microscope slide, stick it in the camera, run to the other side of the camera, and focus. Then he got the picture. He would do a lot of this outside in the cold.
And he did it before we had Gore-tex or other modern cold-weather gear. No Gore-tex, and no electricity. To expose the pictures, he used natural daylight.
What sort of shutter speed did he need to use? He had about two minutes before the snowflake would melt. The exposure, I think, was a minute and a half long.
Did he have any assistants? I don’t believe so. There’s no mention of assistants in the records I found. He would have been helping his family on the farm to some extent, but I think they didn’t understand why he was doing that, and why he wasn’t helping them more.
How many snowflake images did Bentley take? He took over 5,300 by the end of his life.
The Wilson Bentley snowflake photos are described as “photomicrographs”. What are photomicrographs? Did Bentley invent the photomicrograph process? A photomicrograph is a photograph of a microscopic object, taken with the aid of a microscope. He did not invent the process. I don’t know who’s really credited with it. It was used before Bentley used it, to photograph blood cells in the mid-19th century.
What can we tell, just by looking at these photomicrographs, how difficult they were to make? We all know how small a snowflake is. You can see how much he was able to magnify it himself, with 19th century equipment. You can see how detailed they are. They show the work put into the images. You can see not just the outsides [of the snowflakes] but the unique designs, the details in the prints themselves.
I found a quote on Wikipedia about Bentley that said, “He did it so well that hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years.” What was it about the quality and strength of his photographs that convinced everyone else to leave the field to him? He really was the first to be able to photograph snowflakes the way that he did–over 5,000, and he did publish a book in the final year of his life. He devoted himself entirely to this. We don’t really see snowflake photos by anyone else [during this period]. I can see how that would be true.
How responsible were Wilson Bentley’s snowflake photos for promoting the idea that no two snowflakes are alike? Very important. He basically figured it out. Nobody knew that before. He shot the first image in 1885, and he died in 1931. He never saw two that were the same.
Did he ever deliberately market and sell any of his snowflake images as collectible works of art? Might he have sold some of them to fund his snowflake photography work? I actually don’t know. I could not find anywhere [evidence or discussion] if he sold prints during his life. He would have sold some slides to American schools and museums, and sold them to fashion designers and jewelers as inspiration for design. But I don’t know if he sold them for money. In 1904, he contacted the Smithsonian. He had taken 2,000 images [by then] and he wanted them to take the best images for long-term preservation. They did, and they sent him some money for supplies.
So Wilson Bentley’s snowflake photos were not seen as artistic images during his lifetime? I would say they were mostly viewed as scientific images. I’m sure a lay person could understand the beauty of seeing snowflakes up close. But I can’t imagine him framing them and sticking them up on the walls. He did not try to decorate his house [with them]. He wanted people to know his research he was doing, scientifically speaking.
So people start seeing Wilson Bentley snowflake photos as art some time after he dies in 1931? In terms of the art market, I didn’t find auction records for these before 2005. Dealers sold them here and there over the years. They didn’t get to the secondary art market for a long time.
The date range for this group of ten Wilson Bentley snowflake photos spans the late 1890s to the 1920s. Why is the span so wide? We just don’t know when they were taken. They’re not dated. When we get a set, we use the widest range we can. We err on the side of caution.
It’s odd that he did not date the snowflake images, given that he saw himself as doing scientific work. You’d think he’d want to, if only to see if certain patterns emerged over time. It is interesting, and we don’t know why [he didn’t date them]. In general, photographers did not sign or date all their things until the 20th century. It’s not unusual to see prints like this that are unsigned.
The lot notes describe the group as “selected images”. Who did the selecting? Were the Wilson Bentley snowflake photos released originally as this specific group of ten, or did someone along the way pull them together? “Selected” is just what we say when we have a group of photographs from one photographer. It came to us this way from one collector.
How often do Wilson Bentley snowflake photos come to auction? On a fairly regular basis. We see a set once a season, maybe.
Are they always in some sort of group, or do individuals come up? We have not offered individuals at Sotheby’s. They sell on their own for a few hundred.
What are the Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs like in person? They’re not black and white. They have deep, dark brown tones, and some are slightly lighter than others. The darks are not just black–they’re almost black-brown. In person, you can really see the lovely dark chocolate browns. The whites are not white–they’re a creamy color. And there’s a bit of silvering in some of the dark areas, which is typical of something of this age. It adds a beautiful look to each object on its own. They’re quite small–four inches by three inches, which is the size they always are.
Do you have a favorite among the ten? This [above] is the one we chose to reproduce in the catalog, and it remains my favorite. It is a beautifully symmetrical shape, from the center all the way to the formation of the six “arms”, which I think are called dendrites. There is so much detail captured in this tiny print.
What condition are the Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs in? They’re really in quite excellent condition for prints of the late 19th century. There’s barely anything to report. The silvering is not distracting. It’s in the darks. You’ve got to hold them in high, raking light, at an angle, to notice it.
I understand the Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs are framed. Is that unusual? Do we know when they were framed? They were framed pretty recently by the owner. The frames wouldn’t be original to them. I can’t imagine Bentley would have framed anything.
How many groups of Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs have you handled? I started in 2015. Since then, this is the sixth group.
How does this set compare to the other five? It’s really nice, but they’re all very comparable sets. He clearly uses the same process over and over. All six sets that have come up during my time have sold. In October 2016, we sold a group for $22,500.
Is that the world auction record for a set of Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs? It’s up there. Swann sold an album of 25 in February 2016 for $52,000. The next three records are all Sotheby’s, including the one I mentioned.
Why will this group of Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs stick in your memory? It’s a nice selection of different snowflakes, as good a variety of shapes that you can have. What seems to be important to Bentley–he really was passionate about what he did. In his book, he documents snowflakes by shape. That was important to him. He died right after his book came out, of pnemonia, after walking around in the snow. His legacy lives on. He achieved his goal.
Images are courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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