Lennart Nilsson Photographer

Fabriken, Bästekille

1 juli – 1 oktober 2017

“My Dad was an amateur photographer. In his possession, he had a Rolleiflex and a Leica, which he took care of tenderly – almost to the point of not wanting to use them. Aside from these, he had a third camera, a Rolleicord, which he used for family members and relations. Like all fathers interested in photography at that time, he subscribed to the magazine Foto, which I would always pounce upon as soon as it dropped into the letterbox – not because I had any idea back then that my professional career would involve pictures in all their forms but for the magic of the photographs themselves. Foto revealed a world in which photography was seen as art, even if the pictures did not always reach the heights. Its pages were filled with grainy black-and-white photos of bare-breasted women shot from behind or of a Stockholm shrouded in mist, which the magazine was able to reproduce thanks to its special printing technique.
My astonishment and fascination therefore knew no bounds when, in the mid-sixties, I first saw Lennart Nilsson’s octopus and lobster photos. This life-and-death struggle captured in deep, rich colours awoke something new in me. An abyss opened up before my eyes into which I could not help but look – in both fear and fascination.
Now when I revisit these pictures after so many years, I remember how I was drawn not only to the lobster and octopus but also to the endless black background. Back then, I knew nothing of Lennart Nilsson or his working methods. I had, of course, seen both nature films on TV and photographs of the land and sea in books but these tended to present animals and nature living in perfect harmony with each other against a background of thriving coral reefs and lush seaweed. The lobster and octopus pictures, on the other hand, captured a battle of life and death played out against the blackness of infinity. With sand swirling up like stars and galaxies in the inky depths of space, it was as if these two creatures were locked in battle with the universe itself.
Ultimately, the lobster and octopus disappeared from my thoughts and it was not until I came across them again in the eighties that it struck me that the pictures were arranged, that they had been taken against a black background. The struggle between lobster and octopus had been directed, a human hand having led the combatants into this fateful encounter. Rather than this discovery diminishing the pictures in my eyes, it was if it opened up their true depth for me, influenced as I was by contemporary discussions about art and photography.

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In photography, there is always much discussion about that which is, on the one hand, documentary and, on the other, staged. Among the photographer’s many tools are cropping, image enhancement and the ability to choose the shot. Any snapshot of a seemingly documentary quality is moreover the result of a variety of decisions having been taken or arrangements made both before and after the shutter momentarily opens to allow light in. Lennart Nilsson’s photographs always provoke conversation about what is either documentary or arranged and, in reviewing his life’s work, it must be acknowledged that virtually all the pictures are, to some degree, arranged. From the classic diagonal compositions of his Midwife in Lapland reportage pictures to his colour-enhanced images of the inside of the body, his artistic decision-making and touch are most clearly in evidence. And although all is staged to achieve the utmost artistic expression, there is neither any inclination towards politics nor any agenda other than to try and penetrate what it is to be human.

A small child’s playful curiosity about the world can be summarised in four questions: what’s inside, what’s outside, what’s behind and what’s in front?

In the postmodern era, pictures which were staged gained new worth. Artists, like Cindy Sherman, modelled for themselves or, in the case of Joel-Peter Witkin, arranged dead bodies into bizarre tableaux. Consider also Andres Serrano’s series of photographs The Morgue, which is highly reminiscent of Lennart Nilsson’s much earlier photograph of a lobotomy patient in Beckomberga Hospital. This was art which, when it arrived on the scene in the eighties and nineties, provoked both discussion and outrage – as indeed it still can. One might even perceive Lennart Nilsson as a kind of artistic pioneer, albeit unwitting, when, in a series of self-portraits from the forties, he dresses up as if to perform various professional roles including that of the doctor in a white coat and face mask or explorer in a safari helmet whilst, at the same time, making it clear that it is he who is holding the camera. In duplicating his identity, he forces us to question who it is that we see: is this a doctor taking a photograph or a photographer dressed as a doctor? Or could it even be a photographer who is a doctor who is a photographer who is a doctor? My belief is not that Lennart Nilsson stood on the threshold of postmodernism but rather that he saw these self-portraits quite simply as a game.


A small child’s playful curiosity about the world can be summarised in four questions: what’s inside, what’s outside, what’s behind and what’s in front? In a broader sense, these mirror the duty and work of an artist. Lennart Nilsson embodies this curiosity taken to its furthest extent, to the point where art emerges. Not content with his forties and fifties work in merely investigating the psychology of his subjects, his curiosity and desire for knowledge take him, in the sixties, on a ‘subcutaneous’ journey; in seeking answers to the question ‘what’s inside?’, he turns his attention to the inside of the body. To address the question fully, he quickly appraises himself with modern technology, in particular when presented with the opportunity of using the electron microscope. He never, however, loses himself in the cold light of science, retaining his artistry even when faced with reality at the molecular level. The work which results can perhaps best be described as being a relative of informal abstract painting.

At Fabriken, we are presented with a life’s work. We see photographs taken over the course of more than half a century, images which describe a restless curiosity combined with great artistry. We encounter an oeuvre of global appeal which has acquired an educational function and enriched humanity with its images of ‘the unseen’, and even if these images do not necessarily contain the answers to the mysteries of life, they have nevertheless given us a clear idea of how such mysteries begin. Above all, we meet one of the world’s greatest photographic artists as he generously invites us to join him on a series of breathtaking journeys.”

(Johan Petterson, artist and curator of the exhibition)

The exhibition shows more than 200 works by Lennart Nilsson