The exhibition The Beginning of WestLicht i Vienna presents a selection of the works of the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson (1922-2017). The exhibition is now one of many public cultural events that are closed due to the corona pandemic, but I was there at the opening when it was still quiet before the storm.
Today, Nilsson is best known for his groundbreaking photographs of a growing uterus in the womb. But he began his career as a photojournalist in the 1940s, by documenting people from different classes of society, both in Sweden and abroad.
Celebrities and home births
At the age of 11, Nilsson got his first photo camera from his father, and from his teenage years he photographed many famous Swedes, including members of the Swedish royal house and Ingmar Bergman, to name a few.
His national breakthrough came when he was in his early twenties, snapping a photo series of midwife Siri Sundström and documenting home births in Lapland. The photographs were published in See in 1945. It is touching to see how little has changed when it comes to childbirth, which appears as a sacred ritual, where the pink newborn represents life, vitality and hope.
We are struggling to live, but most of all to survive, just like the embryo in the womb.
It is beautiful to see and be reminded that life is a gift in an otherwise so troubled and hopeless time. Although Nilsson's portrayal of the birth appears to be romantic, it moves us. In these quarantine times, it may be especially important to remember that we have only one life, and how precious and holy life is to each individual.
Polar bear hunting on Svalbard
In 1949 it published American Life magazine his photo series with Norwegian fishermen on polar bear hunting in Svalbard. The fishermen should not only sell the polar bear fur; the polar bears were also to be sold to zoos around the world.
Exactly these photographs make it painful to look at, with the climate crisis and the certainty that polar bears are considered a vulnerable animal species in the back of their minds, and not least considering that animals were – and still are – treated in such an unworthy way.
The photographs describe capitalism at its worst. It is raw and brutal where nature is the victim. Here we get a direct insight into a reality that is unknown to us, but which is nevertheless widely used in our part of the world. We do not notice it in everyday life, although in the long term we notice the consequences of this industry.
The human drama
In 1948 Nilsson and the journalist got Svante Löfgren a nine-week assignment from the Swedish photo agency Black Star #: to make a reporting trip back then Belgian Congo. In the otherwise "white" exhibition, portrait photographs by jungle photographer Mayola Amici are a breath of fresh air. Here Nilsson shows a weekday far from the West at a time when Africa was still an unknown continent to many.
These are very ordinary photographs of Friends, but in a very unusual setting (for a western audience). It is an everyday life that is unknown to us, yet exists outside our borders and is as valuable as ours.
Nilsson's photo reports belong to the Humanist Photography tradition, which largely shaped contemporary magazines. Here, human drama takes the lead, and other social problems fade into the background. Nilsson continued to capture the human drama through science photography, which made him seriously noticed.
Interest in the microscopic
Already at the age of 14, Nilsson studied the microscopic nature, from insects to microorganisms. Gradually, he began to study the human eye, myocardial infarction and the crystalline structure of hormones.
In 1953, he published his very first photograph portraying an embryo, entitled "Fetus, 18 weeks", in the American magazine Life. 67 years later, these photographs are still spectacular.
Nilsson reveals the unknown and makes the invisible visible. He challenges the limits of what is possible in photography. His works provoke, touch and give me a lump in the throat because they are still relevant today. Apparently little has changed since the 40s, except that we now experience the direct consequences of everyday life as it was practiced at that time – and before that time again – with climate crisis.
Doctors in Austria have told me that this year's virus is more aggressive and that the number of intensive care patients this winter season has increased. I got this information because I have a family member with chronic lung disease. At the time of writing, we are all quarantined because of the corona virus. The is our human drama now. All other problems seem to fade into the background, just like Nilsson's photographs. We are struggling to live, but most of all to survive, just like the embryo in the womb.
Let's use this time for reflection. The world is on a necessary and decisive break. It is not just about fighting the virus and saving as many lives as possible, but also about how we continue to live during and after this time if nature allows.
We must never forget that it is nature that determines, not we.
Duration of the exhibition: 11 February – 3 May 2020 (closed since 16 March for the time being)