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Stockholm, Sweden — Lennart Nilsson turns 90 on the 24th of August and can look back on an unrivalled career as a photojournalist. He is unique as an educator with a camera, he has been called “a renaissance man in the twentieth century” and he has been compared with the universal genius Leonardo da Vinci.
In the 1960s, Lennart Nilsson was employed at Life Magazine and broke new ground on the border between the scientific and the artistic with his story about how a child is born.
In 1965 his cover story for Life became an all-time bestseller and his book A Child is Born was published that same year, a book that has since been translated into more than 20 languages (the latest being Chinese), has been published in five editions – 1965, 1976, 1990, 2003 and 2009 – and has sold millions of copies.
And that sensational cover story, “Drama of Life Before Birth,” which we’ve all been part of but which none of us remember, was just the beginning of Lennart Nilsson’s tireless exploration of the human body and the miracle of life.
Since then he has continued to surprise and amaze us by using his own ideas and new technology – custom built cameras, tiny fibre optics and advanced microscopy.
Lennart Nilsson’s exploration of the unknown began in the Swedish countryside, in an ordinary anthill, and continued with his adventures under water, which resulted in two books – Myror and Life in the Sea which were both published in 1959.
Lennart Nilsson sees his biggest challenge as being able to explain the unexplainable and to make the invisible visible – his latest work having involved viruses, Particles in the air and bacteria in a bee’s honey stomach. And he usually says that it takes three things to succeed: patience, patience and patience.
- Time doesn’t matter, it’s the result that’s important!
Lennart Nilsson is just as curious about the wonders of nature today as he was when he was 15 years old and got his first close-up look at cells through his newly purchased microscope.
Lennart Nilsson was also in a class of his own as a press photographer during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1945 he followed a midwife who had delivered 1,500 children in the Swedish mountains, a story that was to become his first but by no means his last to gain wide publication overseas.
In 1947 he told the tale of the Norwegian hunt of polar bears which was also a story that gained a lot of international attention, and “tears and protests were heard in many languages.” The following year Lennart Nilsson spent nine weeks travelling round the French and Belgian Congo on the lookout for all things dangerous and wild. And in Rome he got to visit the home of Ingrid Bergman and the new love of her life, the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. The year was 1950 and the romance caused many headlines – not all of them flattering, but they sold many newspapers. Lennart Nilsson reported dramatic pictures from the great flood disaster in Holland in 1953 and was there when Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold was appointed as the secretary-general of the UN the same year.
One of Lennart Nilsson’s classic stories was about the Salvation Army. For months he followed the soldiers of the “army of love,” and among other things he was there at the very moment that an alcoholic man was saved. The pictures were widely published in both Swedish and foreign newspapers – and in the book Halleluja, which was published in 1963.
Lennart Nilsson has photographed portraits of many people, both famous and unknown – royalty, authors, actors, scientists and leading businessmen as well as “ordinary people” in a series of work reports.
He has a natural ability when it comes to winning people’s trust and getting close to them.
When Nikita Khrushchev visited Sweden in 1964 there were seven people seated around Tage Erlander’s dinner table at Harpsund – apart from the guest of honour himself there was also the Swedish Prime Minister, the Soviet and Swedish Ministers of Foreign Affairs, two interpreters and Lennart Nilsson. He was introduced as an old friend of Erlander and was up until the wee hours exchanging small talk and toasts with the Soviet dictator.
While the assembled press corps had to make do with photographing Erlander’s “crown prince” in front of the Houses of Parliament in 1964, Lennart Nilsson accompanied Olof Palme home to his house in Vallingby and took pictures of a loving father and his football-playing sons. And when Ingmar Bergman was shooting a film on Faro, Lennart Nilsson succeeded in capturing the director and his entire team in a group photo. Following Bergman during the making of ‘Shame’ was much like following game – “you have to keep your eyes and ears open at all times, nothing can be arranged, just click, look and listen.”
No photographer has moved us with his stories quite like Lennart Nilsson. When the TV news showed pictures of what we have on our teeth – enlarged to 100,000 times the actual size – the Swedish people choked on their evening coffee, and all the toothbrushes in the stores sold out the next day.
His pictures are to be found on money and stamps, in textbooks and encyclopedias, and some of them are currently on their way out into space, aboard NASA’s space probes Voyager I and II, as part of a greeting from planet Earth.
The photographer whose motto is that nothing is impossible has been richly rewarded during the years for his photographic, journalistic and scientific ambitions.
Lennart Nilsson is an honorary doctor of both medicine and philosophy, he has been given the title of professor and has received gold medals from the government, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. He was the first recipient of the Hasselblad Award in 1980, has received the title Master of Photography and has won the World Press Photo and three Emmy Awards, the TV world’s Oscar, for his films. And just in time for his own 75th birthday the “Lennart Nilsson Award” was instituted in 1997, an international award for a photographer who works in the spirit of Lennart Nilsson.
Image Courtesy of Erik Collin (Centennium) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons