Nature’s Amazing Lenses

 Life Magazine 23 December 1966

When Life Magazine celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1966, they wanted to show a picture from the beginning of creation – “the first picture in history” – and the impossible assignment went to Lennart Nilsson. His idea was to photograph a volcanic eruption through a raindrop, the first lens.

Together with his friend, the engineer Werner Donne, he travelled to the volcanic island of Surtsey off the southern coast of Iceland. The island had appeared only three years earlier, and the ground was still hot and covered with lava. 25 metres from the lava stream, he managed to capture the volcano in a drop of water on a glass plate in front of his camera.


“He has taken the first picture of the world. The earth’s genesis through a drop of water. Standing on the crater’s edge on the newborn island of Surtsey off Iceland, with glowing magma simmering around his long legs.” (Adrup, Dagens Nyheter, 1980)

The photos resulted in the photo-essey  “Nature’s Amazing Lenses”, and the cover of the jubilee issue December 23, is adorned with Lennart’s picture of the human eye from within. Diffracted light was used to take the photograph of the eye. Inside the cornea we see the lens, which is blue due to the strong light. The crystal-like spot in the middle of the lens is a reflection.

The human eye from the side, 1966. ©Lennart Nilsson/SPL

The human eye from the side, 1966. ©Lennart Nilsson/SPL

Look inside Life Magazine 23 December, 1966

Lennart Nilsson’s scientific photographs are available for licensing through Science Photo Library. Please email to to request usage.