The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - LEN­NART NILS­SON, 94 BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­

Swedish pho­tog­ra­pher Len­nart Nils­son used cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy to re­veal un­born life.

Len­nart Nils­son, a Swedish pho­tog­ra­pher who un­veiled un­born life in elec­tri­fy­ing images that were splashed across Life mag­a­zine, filled hours of ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary films and decades later still brim with sci­en­tific, artis­tic and moral sig­nif­i­cance, died Jan. 28 at a nurs­ing home in Stock­holm. He was 94.

His step­daugh­ter, Anne Fjell­strom, con­firmed his death but did not cite a spe­cific cause.

Mr. Nils­son was cel­e­brated around the globe as a pho­tog­ra­pher of nearly sin­gu­lar ge­nius. Draw­ing upon a pri­mal sense of cu­rios­ity, he har­nessed cut­tingedge tech­nol­ogy to cap­ture on film such drama as hu­man con­cep­tion and the in­fec­tion of a cell by the AIDS virus.

He was best known for his images of em­bryos and fe­tuses, which em­bryos be­come about eight weeks af­ter a sperm fer­til­izes an egg. Life mag­a­zine sparked a sen­sa­tion when it fea­tured his work in the 1965 story “Drama of Life Be­fore Birth.” Eight mil­lion copies of the edi­tion — with a cover im­age of an 18-week-old fe­tus co­cooned in the am­ni­otic sac, im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able as an in­cip­i­ent per­son — were sold.

In­side the mag­a­zine were portraits of the most ethe­real qual­ity, de­pict­ing be­ings never be­fore seen by most eyes, and yet in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar. At 61/2 weeks of ges­ta­tion, an em­bryo dis­played clearly vis­i­ble hands. By the eight-week mark, a viewer gaz­ing upon Mr. Nils­son’s pho­tog­ra­phy could per­form that cher­ished rite of de­liv­ery rooms and count 10 tiny toes. At 18 weeks, a fe­tus was cap­tured suck­ing its thumb.

Mr. Nils­son used cus­tomde­signed equip­ment de­scribed by Life as “a spe­cially built su­per wide-an­gle lens and a tiny flash beam at the end of a sur­gi­cal scope.” But his pho­tographs elicited amaze­ment not at hu­man tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ment, but rather at the very fact — some said mir­a­cle — of hu­man ex­is­tence.

“This is like the first look at the back side of the moon,” a Swedish gy­ne­col­o­gist re­marked upon see­ing the images, ac­cord­ing to Life.

Mr. Nils­son’s em­bry­onic and in utero pho­tog­ra­phy later ap­peared in “A Child Is Born,” a best-sell­ing vol­ume trans­lated into an ar­ray of lan­guages and reprinted in nu­mer­ous edi­tions over the years. On tele­vi­sion, it was fea­tured in doc­u­men­taries in­clud­ing “The Mir­a­cle of Life” (1983) and “Odyssey of Life” (1996), both of which aired on the PBS pro­gram “NOVA,” gar­ner­ing Emmy and Pe­abody awards.

In the 1970s, his pho­tos were sent into space aboard the Voy­ager space probes — a call­ing card from mankind for any be­ing that might hap­pen upon it.

On Earth, Mr. Nils­son’s images held pro­found mean­ing for an­tiabor­tion ad­vo­cates, who pointed to the pho­tog­ra­phy to demon­strate how quickly cells com­bine and di­vide to form rec­og­niz­able hu­man life. Mr. Nils­son, whose sub­jects in­cluded dead em­bryos as well as live ones, did not ven­ture into dis­cus­sions of when life be­gins.

“If you are re­li­gious, you may be­lieve that life starts 24 hours af­ter fer­til­iza­tion,” he re­marked. “Some sci­en­tists think it’s when the heart starts beat­ing, 16 to 18 days af­ter fer­til­iza­tion. It de­pends on your­self. I’m just a jour­nal­ist telling you things. It’s my mis­sion in life.”

He once told the Sun­day Times of Lon­don that it was his “dream” to make the “in­vis­i­ble vis­i­ble.” In that pur­suit, he pho­tographed blood ves­sels, the in­te­rior of the heart and ven­tri­cles of the brain.

“Hairs of the head are seen as a grove of trees amid mossy stones; glands of the stom­ach as vol­canic ter­rain; mu­cosal folds within the Fal­lop­ian tube as beau­ti­ful silken veils; cal­cium crys­tals of the in­ner ear . . . as mon­u­men­tal boul­ders, like some moon­lit prim­i­tive Stone­henge,” Irv­ing Geis, a bi­o­log­i­cal artist, wrote in a New York Times book re­view of “Be­hold Man: A Pho­to­graphic Jour­ney of Dis­cov­ery In­side the Body,” a col­lab­o­ra­tion by Mr. Nils­son and Jan Lind­berg.

Lars Olof Len­nart Nils­son was born in Strang­nas, Swe­den, on Aug. 24, 1922. He was 11 when he re­ceived his first cam­era. He once told the pub­li­ca­tion Tech­nol­ogy Re­view that he “wanted to get close to ev­ery­thing, to see the mir­a­cle of life.”

“I clearly re­call the first pic­tures I took of labur­num,” his web­site quoted him as say­ing, re­fer­ring to the tree with its dis­tinc­tive hang­ing chains of golden flow­ers. “Even then, I re­mem­ber think­ing it would be ex­cit­ing to see what labur­num looked like in­side.”

At the start of his ca­reer, Mr. Nils­son worked as a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher, doc­u­ment­ing a mid­wife in the Swedish highlands and Nor­we­gian hunters on the trail of po­lar bears. He pho­tographed celebri­ties, in­clud­ing the ac­tress In­grid Bergman, the di­rec­tor Ing­mar Bergman and the painter Henri Matisse. But Mr. Nils­son ap­peared equally en­am­ored of ants and un­der­wa­ter crea­tures, also among his early sub­jects.

His mar­riage to Bir­git Svens­son ended in di­vorce. Their son, Kjell Nils­son, died in 2013.

In 1989, he mar­ried Catha­rina Tjornedal. Be­sides his wife, sur­vivors in­clude two stepchil­dren, Anne Fjell­strom and Thomas Fjell­strom, all of Stock­holm; a sis­ter; and three grand­chil­dren.

There seemed to be no end to Mr. Nils­son’s fas­ci­na­tion with the world and its won­ders. He pho­tographed the vo­cal cords of the great Swedish op­er­atic so­prano Bir­git Nils­son (not a rel­a­tive). He buried a cam­era in­side the petals of a flower to cap­ture the alight­ing of a bee and in­stalled a lens in­side a man’s mouth to cap­ture a kiss.

In an in­ci­dent mem­o­rable to many of his coun­try­men, a Swedish tele­vi­sion sta­tion once aired Mr. Nils­son’s all-too-re­veal­ing close-ups of hu­man teeth.

“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,” Per Lind­strom, a pro­fes­sor of pho­tog­ra­phy, re­called in a trib­ute on Mr. Nils­son’s 90th birth­day. “All the tooth­brushes in the stores sold out the next day.”

I “wanted to get close to ev­ery­thing, to see the mir­a­cle of life.” Len­nart Nils­son, in an in­ter­view with Tech­nol­ogy Mag­a­zine


ABOVE: Swedish pho­tog­ra­pher Len­nart Nils­son poses for a 2015 por­trait. TOP RIGHT: A photo of a fe­tus in utero taken by Mr. Nils­son. A 1965 edi­tion of Life mag­a­zine fea­tur­ing Mr. Nils­son’s pho­tog­ra­phy in the story “Drama of Life Be­fore Birth” sold 8 mil­lion copies. BOT­TOM RIGHT: A fe­tus in utero cap­tured by Mr. Nils­son. At the time his work was fea­tured in Life mag­a­zine, few peo­ple had seen images of em­bryos and fe­tuses in such de­tail.



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