Hailed as Sweden’s first modern photojournalist, Lennart Nilsson used his background as a scientist to reveal a side of human life heretofore considered unseenable. Starting in the mid-1950s, Nilsson began experimenting with new photographic techniques to make extreme close-up photographs. These advances, combined with very thin endoscopes that became available in the mid-1960s, enabled him to make groundbreaking photographs of living human blood vessels and body cavities.
He achieved international fame in 1965, when his photographs of the beginning of human life appeared on the cover and on sixteen pages of Life magazine. They were also published in Stern, Paris Match, The Sunday Times, and elsewhere. The photographs made up a part of the book, A Child is Born (1965); image from the book were reproduced in on the cover of April 30 1965 edition of Life, which sold eight million copies in the first four days after publication. Life advertised the photo of 18-week old embryo as an ‘Unprecedented photographic feat in color’.
Although Life claimed to show a living fetus, Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish laws. Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’ mouth. Over the intervening years, Nilsson’s painstakingly made pictures were appropriated for purposes that Nilsson never intended. Nearly as soon as the 1965 portfolio appeared in LIFE, images from it were enlarged by right-to-life activists and pasted to placards. Some photos were also later included on both Voyager spacecraft, as the part of the golden record that contains pictures, symbols and sounds of Earth and her inhabitants.