It is one of the most amazing feats the human body has proven capable of achieving, the creation of another living being. While we watch and marvel from the outside, taking photographs of the growth of our baby bumps and debating topics like doulas and birth plans, a true miracle is occurring right below our noses.
It is this very miracle that Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson (1922 – 2017) aimed to capture when he took his first black and white photos in 1957, using his talent for photography to document the process of creation from conception to birth. As technology advanced, so too did the ability to take better quality, more realistic photographs. This led Nilsson to repeat the process again in 1965, this time taking unbelievably clear, detailed color photos that have captivated people the world over.
In fact, these very photographs captured the attention of LIFE magazine, with his photograph of an 18-week-old human fetus appearing on the cover of the April 30, 1965 issue. In the associated article, TIME wrote: “Ten years ago, a Swedish photographer named Lennart Nilsson told us that he was going to photograph in color the stages of human reproduction from fertilization to just before birth. It was impossible for us not to express a degree of skepticism about his chances of success, but this was lost on Nilsson. He simply said, ‘When I’ve finished the story, I’ll bring it to you.’ Lennart kept his promise. He flew into New York from Stockholm and brought us the strangely beautiful and scientifically unique color essay in this issue.”
Nilsson used wide-angled optics and specialized macro-lenses, capturing embryos and fetuses in ground-breaking in utero photography that would be immortalized for years to come. They were images that the world had never before seen.
“The first job I did for [LIFE] on an exclusive basis was when Dag Hammarskjold was elected UN Secretary General in 1952. I traveled to New York with him and photographed the newly installed Secretary General in his office in the 38th floor in the UN Building,” Nilsson told interviewers. “I had my first embryo pictures along with me on that trip. ‘Unbelievable!’ they said at LIFE. I thought so, too! But I didn’t know anything about the development o the fetus and had to learn from scratch. But they were incredibly enthusiastic at LIFE and twelve years later, in 1965, they published their big story on human reproduction.”