Lennart Nilsson has been called a genius, a legend, and a pioneer. A renaissance man of the twentieth century and a groundbreaking scientist and explorer, he has been compared to both Carl Linnaeus and Leonardo da Vinci. Though considered one of the most important photographers in the history of the medium, he was, in his own words, rather more unassuming:. “I’m just a photographer who happened to develop a fascination for mandkind.” Nilsson was a photographer who thought like a journalist, a teacher with a camera who perceived his greatest challenge as being able to explain the inexplicable, to make the invisible visible. He was an educator who, through his portrayal of everyday life, was able to open people’s eyes and, having mastered the art of gaining their trust, become intimate with them.
For Nilsson, the idea behind the picture has always been of the greatest importance. The aim to tell a story, to distil it into a series of tightly composed pictures and, preferably, to be innovative. A good picture is one which shows something never previously seen and which cannot be improved upon.
Nilsson always retained his curiosity – and his work was never done. In combination with his meticulous, perfectionist nature, it was this pioneering spirit, this desire to do and show that which no man or woman had done before, that mad him the successful storyteller he was.
“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)
Nilsson was born in 1922 and given his first camera when he was eleven years old. “I clearly remember the first pictures I took of laburnum. Even back then, I thought it would be exciting to see what laburnum looked like on the inside.”
While still in his teens, he embarked on a career as a photojournalist for the major illustrated magazines. He took pictures of actors, musicians, politicians, industrialists, cultural celebrities and royalty. Since he often became friends with those he portrayed, his work yielded many personal and unique pictures.
For many years, Nilsson worked as a reportage photographer and became known, at an early stege, as one of Sweden’s foremost pictorial narrators. Travelling widely throughout Sweden and the rest of the world, he contributed a number of acclaimed features, particulary for the illustrated magazines Se and Vecko-Journalen.
One of his early photo features, which also provided him with an international reputation, was that of the polar bear hunt in the Spitsbergen. The photos were as beautiful as they were disturbing, and Nilsson became famous for daring to go closer, further and deeper than many other photographers.
In the early fifties, his interest of experimenting with new photographic techniques began to flourish. Macro-level studies of ant life provided the basis not only for his classic photo feature but also for a book, Myror (Ants, 1959). This same year saw the publication of the book Liv i Hav (Life in the Sea) which created a great sensation. Few coul have dreamt that such drama lay hidden beneath the surface of the sea.
“I want to show that which is close to us, that which is familiar, in a new way.”
Lennart Nilsson’s interest in mankind and the origins of life had been awakened at an early age and, in 1953, Life Magazine published his first picture of an embryo. This was also the precursor to what later became his life’s work, Ett barn blir till (A Child is Born), one of the world’s best-selling photographic books. Since the first edition appeared in 1965, it has been translated into more than twenty languages, published in six editions and reached millions of readers.
1965 was also the year in which Life published its “Drama of Life Before Birth“ feature, a milestone for both Lennart Nilsson and the history of photography. The entire issue was sold out after only a few days. Nilsson’s photographs receiving a level of attention comparable only with that inspired by pictures of the first moon landing.
For the ensuing seven years, Nilsson had a special contract with Life and it was during this period that he embarked in earnest upon his pioneering work in the field of scientific photography. His interest in technological innovations enabled him to create photographs with a richness of detail greater then had ever before been seen.
“What drives me is a desire to illustrate those essentional processes which concerns us all greatly and yet are invisible – to make them visible. Such processes can take place either inside the human body or in the life there is on earth. At the same time I hope to inform people. I want to increase their respect for life.”
Lennart Nilsson passed away the 28 of January 2017