The lonesome space traveller
In the 1960s embryo and fetus were shaped in the public imagination by magazine use of images from the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson.
In 1965, Life magazine published a story about human intrauterine development, centred on Nilsson’s memorable images. These were not the first embryo photographs in the press or even the first to show a developmental series. In 1950, Life had itself published a set showing development between the third and thirteenth weeks. But it was Nilsson’s images that became twentieth-century icons. In contrast to the blurry black-and-white ultrasound scans, they shared in the explosion of colour in print and on screen. They also came at a critical time: more monitoring of pregnancy, more human reproduction taught in school, abortion-law reform on the agenda and high interest in science.
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.
‘Life before birth’ in Life, 1965
Lennart Nilsson’s ‘Spaceman’ embryo, 1967