Posts Tagged ‘snow’

The Snowflake Man

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Wilson BentleyWilson Bentley was a Renaissance man. He had no formal training in science or art,  yet he had a talent and a passion for both. In 1885 he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal, and would go on to photograph more than 5000.

His story is just as inspiring as his work. His father, a farmer, did not appreciate his son’s scientific ambitions, but his mother encouraged him. Bentley later recalled, “When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower.”

But it was snow that fascinated him most, and he spent over a year experimenting with a bellows camera and microscope trying to photograph the elusive crystals. Once he succeeded, it was thirteen years before he published his work in Popular Scientific Monthly and caught the attention of the scientific world. Photograph by Wilson BentleyYet he never sought to make a profit from his work, and sold prints of his photographs for pennies because he wanted people to enjoy them.

He wrote, “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.”

It is all too true that often the most beautiful things in life are with us for the shortest time. Luckily we have the photographs of Wilson Bentley to preserve at least some of them.

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

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The following video report gives a brief overview of his life:

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The story of Wilson Bentley has inspired other artists as well. He was the subject of the Caldecott Award-winning book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian.

Snowflake Bentley book

He also inspired an award-winning solo theater production, created by Sarah Frechette of Puppetkabob. Using Czech-style marionettes, miniatures, pop-up paper art, music and live storytelling, she brings Wilson’s story to life. You can learn more about the making of her production here.

Snowflake Man by Sarah Frechette

You can learn a lot more about Snowflake Bentley and his amazing work at the official website.

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Katy and the Big Snow – a children’s classic

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Katy and the Big Snow

All this recent snow has reminded me of one of my favorite picture books from childhood, Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Though not as famous as some of her other books, I think it’s one of the best books about snow, and one of the best picture books ever made.

The story is deceptively simple – a city is buried in a blizzard of snow, and a tractor named Katy saves the day by plowing everyone out. But there are many remarkable things about this book, starting with the design. Burton was a designer and printmaker as well as an author and illustrator, and she uses pattern, shape and simplification to turn every page into a visual marvel. Take the city itself, designed as a map so intricate yet so understandable because of its simple design.

Katy and the Big Snow sample

This map becomes even more amazing when you realize that it is a template for all the scenes later in the book. When Katy plows out the railroad station, you can go back to the map and see how it matches up. Burton even adds a compass to many of the pages to help readers see where they are.

There is also a wonderful use of white space to emphasize the blanket of snow that envelopes the city. As the intrepid tractor plows through the snow, we see the city emerge from the whiteness. She plows each section of the city, eventually uncovering the entire map that we saw at the beginning of the book.

Katy and the Big Snow

There are many other layers to this book, for instance how it shows all the different parts of a city (fire department, water department, telephone company, etc) and how they work together. And it has great little details like the milk truck and bakery truck resuming their deliveries after Katy clears the way.

The repeating swirls and curves of the city establish a visual theme that is carried throughout the book. Even more so than The Little House or Mike Mulligan, this book uses the kind of decorative borders and patterns that Burton excelled at in her printmaking and fabric design. The simple palette of white and blue, set off with highlights of red, yellow and green for the buildings, makes for a vivid and memorable design.

Katy and the Big Snow

There are almost no close-ups in this book, something which goes against all the “rules” of book illustration that say you must vary your perspective. And yet it works here because it lets you follow Katy’s progress as she plows out each section of the city, and you can see not only where she is at that moment, but also the places she previously plowed out as they resume their business. Burton had an instinctive eye for how to tell a story visually, and how to show only what was necessary.

The story itself contains themes of patience and hard work. Katy is too big to plow during light storms, but when the big blizzard hits, she comes to the rescue and saves the entire city. The fact that Katy is a female tractor is never mentioned, which in itself is a quiet but powerful message about equality. Almost sixty years after its publication, children’s books about trucks and machines are still overwhelmingly aimed at boys, which is too bad. Katy was a pioneer, just like her creator, carving out new paths in storytelling and bookmaking. This is a true classic, far ahead of its time; and in some ways, ahead of ours.