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Snowflakes command the focus of Mulvaney's camera

Bruce Mulvaney is among those who celebrate the change of seasons and snow. He spent years photographing individual snowflakes and came to appreciate a beauty most of us rarely see. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

LAKE GILCHRIST -- For those who agree with Carl Reiner that snow is "an unnecessary freezing of water,'' stop right here.

This is for snow lovers, chief among them being Bruce Mulvaney.

When others were taking refuge from the storms of winter, Mulvaney would dash straight outside. His passion was to spend a good hour or two capturing individual snowflakes to put under the lens of his 35-millimeter film camera.

If things went well, he'd capture on film three or four images of individual snowflakes for his nearly two hours of collecting in the brunt of a winter storm.

The reward? "How utterly beautiful and intricate snowflakes are,'' said Mulvaney of the hundreds of images he captured. He stores them in albums like photographs from family vacations.

Mulvaney and his wife, Barbara, make their retirement home on Lake Gilchrist in Pope County. At age 70, he continues to appreciate Minnesota's change of seasons and the opportunities to hunt, ice fish and snowmobile.

His passion for the microscopic view of snow started in the 1970s, while he worked in Honeywell's research center in Minneapolis. He was involved in projects ranging from measuring chemical sensitivity for bio-medical testing to ground floor work in computer programming during a 33-year career.

His work involved the use of electron microscopes, and also provided him with lots of practice and ready access to more traditional photography.

With a Pentax SLR camera, dark room and a Minnesota address, what more could he need?

"There was no lack of subjects, no doubt about that,'' he said with a laugh of the snowflakes he sought.

Yet his pursuit of capturing snowflakes on film was far more challenging than might be imagined. Snowflakes are extremely fragile works of nature. They remain unblemished and whole for about the time it takes them to form around a piece of dust and fall to the ground.

His challenge was to catch the flakes, put them on a photographic slide while working outside in the cold and wind, and snap his photographs before the crystals were blemished by either the contact or changes in temperature and humidity.

To capture their microscopic beauty, he attached specially made aluminum extenders to his camera. They allowed him to magnify the image of the individual ice crystals anywhere from 200 to 1,200 times their actual size.

The difficulties of capturing the beauty of snowflakes were far greater in 1885, when a man by the name of Wilson A. Bentley was the first to photograph a single snowflake. Bentley, of Jericho, Vermont, made photographing snowflakes his life-long passion. He became known as the "snowflake man'' for the 1931 book "Snow Crystals'' that featured his hundreds of photographs.

That work became the inspiration for Mulvaney, who sought to take advantage of modern photographic equipment to capture far more of the internal detail of the ice crystals than his predecessor could manage.

Mulvaney discovered that while no two snowflakes are identical, they do share lots of similarities. Temperature and humidity shape how the six-fold crystals will form.

The colder and drier the air, the less interesting the resulting crystals, said Mulvaney. Crystals formed in bitter cold temperatures are hexagonal and smooth and slick.

That explains why our cross country skis or snowmobile tracks have more difficulty getting traction on powder-like snow.

In contrast, snowflakes formed at warmer temperatures and in more humid air develop the intricate and fanciful arms and detail that we often associate with snowflakes.

Mulvaney captured examples of the entire range of intricacy. He had lithographic images created from his four best examples. He sold the limited edition prints at gift shops both in the Twin Cities and out-state.

He ran into one problem. The images are so detailed and so near perfect that shoppers were skeptical. "Most people don't believe they're real,'' he said.

He knows the truth of the matter, and far better than most of us, knows that the beauty of snow is all in the details.

For those interested in seeing the details, copies of his snowflakes can be viewed at