Lennart Nilsson has been called a genius, a legend, and a pioneer. A 21st century Renaissance Man. A groundbreaking scientist and explorer. He has been compared to Carl Linnaeus and Leonardo da Vinci. And he is regarded as one of the most influential photographers in the history of the medium. He himself has a more modest opinion. “I’m just a photographer who happened to become fascinated with mankind.”
Lennart Nilsson is a photographer who thinks like a journalist. An educator with a camera, who sees as his greatest challenge to explain the inexplicable and to make the invisible visible. Spreading knowledge to the people, by portraying everyday life in a way that helps others to see. He knows how to gain people’s confidence, and how to get close to them.
For Lennart Nilsson. the idea behind the picture was always crucial. The ambition to tell an important story, to distil it into a series of potent images, and preferably to be the first to present innovations. A good photograph is a photograph that shows something no one has seen before. And a photograph is not good if it could be done better.
Lennart Nilsson has always been curious. And he is never done. His delight in discovery, in wanting to do and show what nobody has managed previously, together with his meticulous perfectionism, have made him the successful narrator that he is.
“Time is of no consequence, it’s the result that matters.”
“To understand Lennart Nilsson’s unique position in a profession that boasts so many talented practitioners, we need to realise that he is something far beyond a mere photographer. He is actually akin to the great explorers of the previous century. These travellers were obsessed with the desire to make inroads into the unknown. But they were also passionate about all the findings and facts they encountered, and eager to convey these discoveries to everyone at home.” (Sven Lidman, Dagens Nyheter, 7 April, 1974)
Lennart Nilsson was born in 1922 and was given his first camera when he was 11. “I clearly recall the first pictures I took of laburnum. Even then, I remember thinking it would be exciting to see what laburnum looked like inside.”
While still in his teens, Lennart Nilsson embarked on a career as a freelance photo journalist for illustrated magazines and the newspapers. He took pictures of actors, musicians, politicians, industrialists, cultural celebrities and royalty. Since he often became friends with the people he portrayed, his efforts resulted in many personal and unusual photographs.
For many years, Lennart Nilsson worked as a feature photographer and became known at an early age as one of Sweden’s best visual narrators. Travelling far and wide in Sweden and the rest of the world, he made many acclaimed articles, mainly for illustrated magazines Se and Vecko-Journalen.
One of his early photo features, which also gave him an international reputation, was about a polar bear hunt in the Spitsbergen. The photos were exquisite and disturbing in equal measure, and Lennart Nilsson made a name for himself as the photographer who dared go closer, further, deeper, than many others.
In the 1950s, his interest in experimenting with new photographic techniques gained momentum. Macro-studies of ant life resulted in a classic photographic feature, but also in the book Myror (Ants, 1959). The same year saw the publication of the book Liv i hav (Life in the Sea), which stirred up a great deal of interest. Few were aware of the drama that was hidden under the surface.
“I want to reveal that which is close to us, that which is familiar, in a new way.”
Lennart Nilsson’s fascination for mankind and the origins of life had been awakened at an early age, and in 1953, Life Magazine had printed his first photo of an embryo. This marked the starting point of what would become Lennart Nilsson’s life work, A Child is Born, one of the world’s best-selling photographic books. Since its first edition in 1965, it has been translated into more than 20 languages and printed in five editions, reaching millions of readers.
In 1965, Life also published the photo essay Drama of Life Before Birth, a milestone for both Lennart Nilsson and photographic history. The entire issue sold out in only a few days, and the sensation caused by his photographs was on a par with the pictures from the first moon landing.
In the ensuing seven years, Lennart Nilsson had a special contract with Life, and it was during this period that he embarked in earnest on his pioneering work in scientific photography. His interest in technological innovations enabled him to photograph with a degree of detail that no one had seen before.
“I am driven by a desire to illustrate vital processes that concern us all to the highest degree yet are invisible – to make them visible. Such processes can take place inside the human body or in the life that exists on earth. I want to educate people and also increase their reverence for life.”