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2 February 2017
Swedish photographer and scientist Lennart Nilsson passed away on Saturday in Stockholm at the age of 94. He combined his love of photography with curiosity about the natural world to produce images never before seen using medical instruments in the service of photography.
Among his most famous images are those of a human embryo's growth from fertilization to birth, a project that took 12 years to complete and were published by Life magazine in 1965.
The first attempts were made with an American endoscope with an electronic flash. But he achieved better results using a Storz endoscope with a diameter of just 0.6 millimeters that, with a wide-angle, 100-degree wide lens delivers high resolution images using fiber optics.
Only after the images were published did it become widely known that many of the embryos used in the project were not alive but aborted. According to the University of Cambridge's online exhibit Making Visible Embryos:
Although claiming to show the living fetus, Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish law. Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus' mouth. But the origin of the pictures was rarely mentioned, even by 'pro-life' activists, who in the 1970s appropriated these icons.
Nilsson was himself involved in the development of the medical equipment he used for his photography. He worked directly with both German and Japanese inventors for decades to develop technology like lenses only a fifth of a millimeter in diameter for his embryo photographs.
He also used a scanning electron microscope for capturing more accessible subjects in minute detail. The thermo-room of his lab was kept at room temperature so he could follow a living cell for a week, capturing one to three frames a minute. That required working remotely to avoid any vibration.
The real problem, he once said, was the lighting:
The light is our real enemy. So we have to work with very, very poor lighting. But we can increase the light with computers. That's the new way -- with computers, computers, computers. That's the way we can have the cell survive and get some new information in high resolution.
He was also able to capture the first images of the HIV virus with a high resolution scanning electron microscope from Japan. Similarly, he explored cerebral hemorrhages and smokers' lungs with his photography, as well. And he had planned to shoot celestial bodies "in a new way with a telescope -- to make them more familiar."
Both his father and uncle were photographers and Nilsson joined the family tradition when his father gave him a camera at the age of 12. He became interested in microscopy after seeing a documentary about Louis Pasteur when he was 15. That led to Nilsson's pursuit of insect photography using a microscope.
In the mid-1940s he became a freelance photographer and covered the liberation of Norway from Nazi Germany in 1945.
He returned to his interest in macrophotography in the mid-1950s, using endoscopes to capture living human blood vessels and body cavities before recording a human fetus.
His Life magazine photographs of 1965 became the book A Child Is Born. And a few of them were included on both Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977 and now exploring the outer boundary of the heliosphere in interstellar space.
Among his many awards was the first Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography in 1980. His documentary films won three Emmy Awards.