The Drama of Life Before Birth

“The most unbelievable thing we’ve ever published, with regard to astonishment and beauty.” (Ralph Graves, former managing editor, Life Magazine)

The greatest of Lennart Nilsson’s stories, the one about how a child is born, started with an ordinary assignment at Sabbatsberg hospital in Stockholm in 1952. When the job was done, Lennart happened to see a foetus in a glass jar with formaldehyde. Fascinated by the embryo, which measured a few centimetres, he borrowed it and photographed it at home for more than a week before he was satisfied with the results. Many years later, Lennart described this event as an “information shock”, perhaps because he was about to become a father himself.

When Dag Hammarskjöld was appointed Secretary General of the UN a year later, Life Magazine commissioned Lennart to follow the Swedish diplomat on his way from the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm to the UN Headquarters in New York. When he presented his pictures of Dag Hammarskjöld to the editors, he took the opportunity to show them his photos of the human embryo.

The rest, as they say, is history. In 1965, Life published “The Drama of Life Before Birth”. The entire issue sold out in only a few days. The book A Child is Born was published the same year, and has been translated into 20 languages and printed in five editions since then.

“Unbelievable! said Life. And I agreed! But I didn’t know a thing about embryonic development and had to start my photo project from scratch. Life were extremely enthusiastic, however, and in 1965, twelve years later, they published the big feature on human reproduction.”

When Lennart’s first pictures of the embryo were published in 1953, he had neither the contacts nor the technical equipment to achieve what he had already envisioned as a inimitable visual narrative. Five years later, he was able to embark in earnest on his task of documenting life before birth. He had learnt the technology and scientific approach while working on the photo essay Livets födelse (The Origin of Life), about marine life off the Swedish west coast.

Together with medical experts, and in collaboration with five hospitals in the Stockholm region, Lennart took seven years to complete his article for Life Magazine. In the course of the project, the idea of a handbook for parents to be was born. On 1 October, 1965, the first edition of A Child is Born was published in Swedish by Albert Bonniers förlag in Stockholm.

”Ten years ago a Swedish photographer named Lennart Nilsson told us that he was going to photograph in colour the stages of human reproduction from fertilization to just before birth. It was impossible for us not to express a degree of scepticism about his chances of success, but this was lost on Nilsson. He simply said, ‘When I’ve finished the story, I’ll bring it to you.’ Lennart kept his promise. He flew into New York from Stockholm and brought us the strangely beautiful and scientifically unique colour essay in this issue.” (George P. Hunt, editor-in-chief, Life Magazine, 1965)