Colouring the Human Landscapes

Lennart Nilsson and the Spectacular World of Scanning Electron Micrographs

in Nuncius
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This article explores the relationship between Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s scanning electron micrographs and commercial culture from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. By retracing how Nilsson’s micrographs of the internal structures of the human body were made, circulated, and received, its aim is to investigate three aspects of this relationship. First, it highlights how the complex and sometimes conflicting interplay between the photographer and various actors in science, industry and the media shaped the pictures and their trajectories. Second, it analyses the processes used to colour Nilsson’s original black-and-white micrographs in relation to tendencies in the media and the advertising industry during this period. Third, it examines what motivated Nilsson and his collaborators in their use of colour and also the critical debates concerning the spectacular and commercial qualities of his pictures. In the concluding section, the implications of this analysis for the history of the objectivity of scientific images is discussed.

Colouring the Human Landscapes

Lennart Nilsson and the Spectacular World of Scanning Electron Micrographs

in Nuncius




Jan Lindberg Lennart Nilsson“Embryonalstudier med svepelektronmikroskop,” Läkartidningen1974 71:3181–3196.


Solveig Jülich“Lennart Nilssons tidiga fosterfotografier: Från abortdebatt till sexualundervisning,” in In på bara huden: Medicinhistoriska studier tillägnade Karin Johannissonedited by Torbjörn Gustafsson Chorell Maja Bondestam (Nora: Nya Doxa 2010).


Lennart Nilsson Albert Rosenfeld“Drama of Life before Birth,” LifeApril 30 1965:54–72A; Lennart Nilsson Axel Ingelman-Sundberg Claes Wirsén Ett barn blir till: En bildskildring av de nio månaderna före födelsen: En praktisk rådgivare för den blivande mamman (Stockholm: Bonnier 1965). The first American and British editions were published in 1966 and 1967. For a recent study see Solveig Jülich “The Making of a Best-selling Book on Reproduction: Lennart Nilsson’s A Child Is BornBulletin of the History of Medicine forthcoming Summer 2015.


Solveig Jülich“Objektiva bilder: Ideal och strategier,” Medicinen blir till vetenskap: Karolinska Institutet under två århundradenedited by Karin Johannisson Ingemar Nilsson Roger Qvarsell (Stockholm: Karolinska Institutet University Press 2010).


Lennart NilssonKroppens försvar: En bilderbok om hoten mot kroppen och hur kroppens immunförsvar fungerar (Stockholm: Bonnier1985). The full title of the English edition was The Body Victorious: The Illustrated Story of Our Immune System and Other Defences of the Human Body (London: Faber and Faber 1987). The National Geographic publications include C.D.B. Bryan The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery (Oxford: Phaidon 1987); Robert M. Poole (ed.) The Incredible Machine (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society 1986).


Donna HarawaySimians Cyborgs and Women (New York: Routledge1991) p. 222.


Cyrus C.M. Mody“Corporations, Universities, and Instrumental Communities: Commercializing Probe Microscopy, 1981–1996,” Technology and Culture2005 47:56–80.


Virginia Berridge Kelly Loughlin (eds.)Medicine the Market and the Mass Media: Producing Health in the Twentieth Century (New York: Routledge2005); Jean-Paul Gaudillière Ilana Löwy (eds.) The Invisible Industrialist: Manufactures and the Production of Scientific Knowledge (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1998); Karl Grandin Nina Wormbs Sven Widmalm (eds.) The Science-Industry Nexus: History Policy Implications Nobel Symposium 123 (Sagamore Beach MA: Science History Publications/USA 2004); Bernward Joerges Terry Shinn (eds.) Instrumentation: Between Science State and Industry (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000); Steven Shapin “Ivory Trade” London Review of Books September 11 2003 25:15–19.


Lorraine Daston Peter GalisonObjectivity (New York: Zone Books2007). For critical discussions see Theodore M. Porter “The Objective Self” Victorian Studies 2008 50:641–647; Jennifer Tucker “Objectivity Collective Sight and Scientific Personae” Victorian Studies 2008: 50:648–657; Amanda Anderson “Epistemological Liberalism” Victorian Studies 2008 50:658–665; Lorraine Daston Peter Galison “Response: Objectivity and Its Critics” Victorian Studies 2008 50:666–677.


Robert Darnton“What is the History of Books?,” in The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (London: Faber and Faber 1990) pp. 107–135; “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris” The American Historical Review 2000 105:1–35.


J.L. Locher Mark BoyleMark Boyle’s Journey to the Surface of the Earth (Stuttgart: Hansjörg Mayer1978) pp. 124–130. According to his son Sebastian Boyle these SEM images had been taken at Brunel University of London. See e-mail from Sebastian Boyle to the author (May 21 2010).


David ScharfMagnifications: Photography with the Scanning Electron Microscope (New York: Schocken Books1977).


Lennart Nilsson“The Worlds within Us,” LifeJanuary 9 1970:40–56 p. 40; Lennart Nilsson Stig Nordfeldt “Detta är du: En okänd värld på väg att upptäckas” Se 1970 10:30–45.


Lennart Nilsson“The Corridors of the Heart,” LifeJanuary 19 1968:22–31.


Lennart Nilsson Jan LindbergSe människan: En fotografisk upptäcktsfärd i din kropp (Stockholm: Bonnier1973). The full title of the English edition was Behold Man: A Photographic Journey of Discovery Inside the Body (London: Harrap 1974); Nilsson Lindberg The Body Victorious (cit. note 6).


Eva PatekThe Epithelium of the Human Fallopian Tube: A Surface Ultrastructural and Cytochemical Study (Diss. Stockholm: Karolinska Institutet1974) p. 26.


Eric Dyring Annagreta Dyring (eds.)Synligt och osynligt: Vetenskapens nya bilder (Stockholm: Allmänna förlaget1973). Also see the interview with Pettersson (cit. note 37).


Lennart Nilsson Stig Nordfeldt“Människans okända tid,” Damernas värld1974 (no. 35–38).


Allan Danielsson“Svepelektronmikroskopet,” Kosmos1970 47:127–139; Per-Gotthard Lundquist Åke Flock Jan Wersäll “Raster- und Elektronen-Mikroskopie des menschlichen Labyrinths” Monatsschrift für Ohrenheilkunde und Laryngo-Rhinologie 1971 105:285–300. Also see the interviews with Flock and Lundquist (cit. note 28).


Michael Lynch Samuel Y. Edgerton Jr.“Aesthetics and Digital Image Processing: Representational Craft in Contemporary Astronomy,” in Picturing Power: Visual Depiction and Social Relationsedited by Gordon Fyfe John Law (London: Routledge 1988). Also see Elizabeth A. Kessler “Resolving the Nebulae: The Science and Art of Representing M51” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 2007 38:477–491.


Sven Möller“Falkenbergares färgmetod möjliggjorde reportage för en kvarts miljard läsare,” HallandspostenFebruary 24 1970.


Mary PanzerThings as They Are: Photojournalism in Context Since 1955 (New York: Aperture Foundation/World Press Photo2005) p. 24.


Stig Nordfeldt“Detta är en cancercell!” Veckojournalen1969 47:8–9 39.


Charles R. Acland (ed.)Residual Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press2007). The term “residual” stems from Raymond Williams’s study of culture’s emergent dominant and residual forms. See his book Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1977) p. 122.


Lennart Nilsson Lars HambergerEtt barn blir till4. ed. (Stockholm: Bonnier 2003). The American and British editions were published in the same year. Also see the interview with Hamberger (cit. note 66).


Lennart NilssonNära naturen: En upptäcktsfärd i naturens mikrokosmos (Stockholm: Bonnier fakta1984) p. 6; Nilsson Kroppens försvar (cit. note 6) p. 195; Nilsson Hamberger Ett barn blir till (cit. note 68) p. 236.


Bengt Cederback“Människokroppen i bild,” Upsala Nya TidningMarch 5 1974. Also see Bertil Walldén “Insyn i människokroppen” Vestmanland Läns Tidning November 17 1973.


Anita Lagercrantz-Ohlin“Han är en kamera i mikrovärlden,” Svenska DagbladetNovember 16 1974.


Gunilla Winsnes“Nu ska han visa hur människan påverkas av alla miljögifter,” Stockholms-KurirenMarch 30 1977.


Martin Lister“Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging,” in Photography: A Critical Introductionedited by Liz Wells 4th ed. (London: Routledge 2009).


  • View in gallery
    Figure 1

    In the early 1970s Lennart Nilsson and Jan Lindberg presented a series of scanning electron micrographs of human embryos in the Swedish medical journal Läkartidningen that attracted considerable attention. This was due both to the novelty of the visualization technique and the use of a colour image for the first time on the front cover of the journal. Cover of Läkartidningen, 1974, 71 (35). Lennart Nilsson/TT News Agency.

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    Figure 2

    One of the first scanning electron micrographs to be published by Nilsson showed the taste buds of a newborn baby’s tongue. From Lennart Nilsson and Stig Nordfeldt, “Detta är du: En okänd värld på väg att upptäckas”, Se, 1970 (10). Lennart Nilsson/TT News Agency.

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    Figure 3

    Scanning electron micrographs of dental caries appeared both in Nilsson’s best-selling work on medicine, The Body Victorious, and in this advertisement for Bofors toothpaste. The caption reads, “Look at Lennart Nilsson’s pictures and you will understand what Bofors protects you against.” From Veckojournalen, 1976 (8). Lennart Nilsson/TT News Agency.

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    Figure 4

    Lennart Nilsson standing at displays of early black-and-white scanning electron micrographs of taste buds at the photographic exhibition held in Oslo in 1969. From Göran Alsterborg, “Bilder med otroligt skärpedjup genom nytt scanning-mikroskop,” Fotonyheterna, 1969, 9 (8).

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    Figure 5

    The commercial photographer Gillis Häägg was engaged by Nilsson to colour his black-and-white scanning electron micrographs. He developed a complicated method based on separating the grey tones in the original SEM images and converting them into shades of colour. From Lennart Nilsson and Stig Nordfeldt, “Här går startskottet till en ny människa!” Se, 1970 (11).

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    Figure 6

    The colour of the staphylococcus bacteria in one of Nilsson’s SEM images was transformed from black-and-white to a vivid, glowing green as a result of Gillis Häägg’s creative employment of the carbro-process. From Lennart Nilsson and Jan Lindberg, Behold Man: A Photographic Journey of Discovery Inside the Body (London: Harrap, 1974). Lennart Nilsson/TT News Agency.

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    Figure 7

    Gillis Häägg used the dye transfer process to colour this picture of two cancer cells on either side of a killer cell. From Lennart Nilsson, The Body Victorious: The Illustrated Story of Our Immune System and Other Defences of the Human Body (London: Faber and Faber, 1987). Lennart Nilsson/TT News Agency.


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