How Life Begins by Lennart Nilsson, 1965

Hailed as Sweden’s first modern photojournalist, Lennart Nilsson used his background as a scientist to become a pioneer in the photography of events taking place inside the human body and reveal a side of human existence heretofore considered unseenable.

It was in the late 1940s, while working at Sabbatsbergs Hospital in Stockholm, Nilsson first photographed human embryos stored in glass jars. Later he began experimenting with new photographic techniques to make extreme close-up photographs. In the mid-1960s when ultra-slim endoscopes became available, he was able to make groundbreaking photographs of living human blood vessels and body cavities.

He showed his photos to Life magazine, who regularly published them and encouraged him to pursue the idea. He started recording the human embryo at each stage of its development, taking four years to complete a comprehensive record of the creation of a human being. The resulting photoessay which appeared on the cover and on sixteen pages of Life magazine was an immediate sensation. 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. He used both living fetuses during medical procedures such as laparoscopy and amniocentesis and dead embryos, which allowed him to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’ mouth.

The embryo photos were first published in the book, A Child is Born (1965). Their reproduction in the April 30, 1965 edition of Life magazine sparked so much interest that the magazine’s entire print run of eight million copies was out within four days. The photos won Nilsson the American National Press Association Picture of the Year award. His photos were also published in Picture Post, Stern, Paris Match, the Sunday Times, the Swedish magazine Se, the Brazilian magazine Realidade, and similar magazines throughout the world.

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. But the origin of his pictures was rarely mentioned, even by anti-abortion activists, who in the 1970s appropriated these icons. 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.

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