The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Andrew W.B. Elis is a volunteer with the Digital Services Division assisting with digitizing collections in the Archives. The following is a creative writing piece based on a collection by Wilson A. Bentley of glass plate negatives depicting snowflakes.
I'd been floating in the air for several hours. My existence amounting to aimless ambling, letting the Wind wisk me in whatever direction it desired. Despite my seemingly directionless existence coupled with my humble origins as mere drops of water, I appeared to be quite symmetrical; something we all strive for in the clouds. I could feel the weight of the other crystals bearing down on me as we all drifted to the ground.
As I aged, I reflected on the time I had spent in the clouds and marveled at the futility of it all. No template determined my form, no physical hand realized my design, and yet this type of Divine inspiration I could not explain insisted on guiding me through the ethereal vapors and morphing me into the six-fold dendrite star I now boasted, even though I would inevitably be lost amongst the endless spans of white.
Suddenly, I found myself nestled in the soft fibers of a wool glove hurriedly transporting me to an interesting device. I cast a glance back to those who were about to join the brave millions who had already landed, and I sighed in resignation, cursing my misfortune. I looked up at the face hovering above me, silhouetted against the bright sun. I could not see the face, but it did not prevent me from asking "Why?"
Then, as if reading my mind, the face spoke reassuredly saying, "Don’t worry, little one. My name is Bentley."
Wilson A. Bentley, affectionately known as the "Snowflake Man" or "Snowflake" Bentley, photographed his first snowflakes in 1885, and discovered that of the incalculable amount of snowflakes that fall in a single snow storm, no two are alike. His fascination with the tiny crystals began at a young age, when his mother gave him an old microscope.
Bentley placed me gently on a smooth piece of glass. I remember seeing his kind eye peering down at me through a series of lenses. He was taking my picture! He worked with fervor, adjusting his lenses, all the while exclaiming words like, "beautiful, magnificent, and no two are alike."
And just as soon as it began, it was over. Bentley lifted the piece of glass I was resting on and carried me carefully toward a pile of freshly fallen snow. With a gentle breath, Bentley blew me off the glass. I caught a slight breeze and drifted briefly in its wake, before I alighted softly on the ground. And as I slowly melded and faded away into the rest of the snow, Bentley smiled warmly at me and whispered, "Thank you."
In a letter written to the Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley in 1904, Bentley observed that he had "collected photographs of snow crystals during the past twenty years, and now have a collection numbering over 1100, no two alike." He went on to photograph one of the most extensive collections of photographs of snowflakes until his death in 1931, totaling over 5,000 images, which he converted to glass plates in order to preserve them.
In the same spirit of preservation, Bentley decided to donate 500 images from his collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1903. As he saw it, the tiny, unique, mysterious crystals that had fascinated him since a young age, and which earned him the acclaimed namesake, would be cared for and protected for many years to come.
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