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Paris Photo 2019: Lennart Nilsson's eulogy

Paris Photo 2019: Lennart Nilsson’s eulogy

The Swedish photojournalist Lennart Nilsson carried out the delicate and unsettling project of photographing human embryos and fetuses from pregnancies terminated for various medical reasons. These funerary portraits examine our relationship to life. The Stene Projects Gallery for the first time exhibits fourteen photos from the series at Paris Photo.

Foetus 20 weeks, 1965/2012 © Lennart Nilsson

Perhaps photography had never gone to such an extreme, to the threshold of life and death, existence and nothingness, as it did in Lennart Nilsson’s work. His camera captured something utterly disconcerting: the face of a tiny baby, tragically still, not yet born and yet already dead. The grey area that is a pregnancy never brought to term became an original, striking, and inevitably disturbing subject of study, which confronts the viewer with perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of death. Using an elaborate photographic technique, Nilsson was able to create stunningly beautiful, tender portraits that examine the human condition. Not only do we have the opportunity to see a stage in our own development, but we are also acutely aware that this particular infant never lived to see its own natural birth. We have a curious relationship with the photographed object in that it both reveals what we once were and shows what we will never become.

Foetus 6 months, 1965/2012 © Lennart Nilsson

A microcosm

These photographs were taken between 1958 and 1965. Acquainted with many scientists and doctors, Lennart Nilsson was allowed to set up a small photographic studio at a Stockholm hospital and work on his project until he successfully photographed an embryo. He would be given barely ten minutes to make an image, and he created about a hundred during those seven years. One of them made the cover of Life Magazine in 1965; the issue sold out in record time. The photographs were also published as a bestselling book. “It is impossible to remain indifferent before these images,” observes the gallery owner Jan Stene. “They possess an undeniable artistic quality, and I think this is what makes them so powerful.” These photographs, he says, raise some important questions not just about ourselves, but also about the universe and our microcosm. Crucially, it would be impossible to create today, because medical imaging has reached such a level of technical perfection that we can see an unborn infant in great detail. We have also become much more sensitized to the subject, from a moral, ethical, and religious point of view. “Lennart Nilsson had no moral or religious agenda in mind when he took these photographs,” says Jan Stene. “They were simply images of humanity.” In a way, the images also commemorate faces which will never enjoy daylight but which are bound to leave an indelible impression on anyone who sees them. 

Foetus 18 weeks, LIFE (cover), 1965/2010 © Lennart Nilsson

Foetus 17 weeks, 1965/2012 © Lennart Nilsson

Foetus 13 weeks, 1965/2010 © Lennart Nilsson

By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

Stene Project

Paris Photo – B41

Grand Palais, 3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris 

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