On cold winter mornings, 83-year-old Len Burgess wakes up before dawn, picks up his camera, and checks the storm windows on his Danvers, Massachusetts, home. When conditions are just right, he can photograph delicate ice crystals that form on the surface of the glass between the window panes—and the resulting images are stunningly beautiful.
“I’m the ice man. No one else shoots this stuff at all,” Burgess told Artnet News of his new photo series, which he simply calls “Ice Crystals.”
Now retired after running his own advertising agency for nearly 40 years, Burgess has been taking photographs since he was 15, when he received a Kodak box camera as a gift.
“It took 127-type film, and I could get it developed through the drugstore where I worked,” he said. Later, Burgess took a photography course at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, where he earned a degree in advertising.
Even as a young boy, Burgess found window frost fascinating. But it wasn’t until many years later, around 2007, when he transitioned to digital photography, that he was finally able to document these ephemeral geometric patterns with a camera. Storm windows, which have a gap between two panes of glass, create optimal conditions for the phenomena.
“With these old storm windows, I probably have had higher heating bills in the winter, but I get the opportunity to shot nature at its very best every year,” Burgess said. “When I was shooting one morning, I got a knock on the door. It was a guy who was selling those thermal pane windows. I told him no—I wouldn’t get any more ice crystals!”
“I tried cleaning the storm windows once and didn’t get good crystals,” he added. “They require some dirt and imperfections in the glass—they grow off those.”
He’s won local awards for his photography and been featured in local publications over the years. But his “only big fame” came in 2012, when architectural designer Catherine Widgery licensed 60 “Ice Crystals” photos for , a public art commission for a new airport train station in Salt Lake City.
“My images were etched along with other designs into huge glass panels that encased a 60 foot elevator and stairway, with panels along the station platform,” Burgess said. “Catherine thought it was the biggest etching ever done on glass.”
Burgess says taking his photos is tricky, as window frost begins to melt as soon as the sunlight hits it. But he has to wait for natural light to begin shooting, as using a flash would trigger a reflection.
“What you want to do is get the light coming through from the outside,” he explained. “Some of the great things that happen with these crystals is because of the different colors outside. I have a red house next to me and in a lot of the photographs I do, the reflection of the red light comes through, dancing through these crystals.”
“I can’t open up the inside window because the heat inside would melt the ice crystals. In order to keep them crisp and clear, you have to shoot through the inside glass,” Burgess added. “I don’t use a tripod, because I’m practically up against the inside window shooting. I have to take hundreds of different angles and distances in a short time.”
For Burgess, that ephemerality lends a sense of urgency to each shoot, as on all but the coldest, most overcast days, the window frost tends to melt away within a couple of hours. His laser focus actually very nearly caused him to miss the most unique shot in the series, of a lacy tracing of ice crystals covering the roof of his car.
“There was a car in the driveway that had not been used for weeks, and one morning there it was, with huge incredible crystal designs and patterns all over it,” Burgess said. “I had to run out in my bathrobe to get the shots because the sun had already started melting it.”
See more “Ice Crystals” photographs below.