“My dream,” yells Nilsson, 40 years later, doing a kind of breaststroke in the air as he leaps out of his chair in his studio-cum-lab hidden away in a basement at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, “is to make the inwisible wisible.” Then he fixes me with the widest eyes I have seen on an 83-year-old and asks excitedly what my dream is? I mumble that I don’t really have one, and then try to make this sound better by adding that I already possess everything I want. Nilsson looks disappointed, and returns to the task that was occupying his full attention before the subject of dreams came up: how best to photograph the deadly bird-flu virus.
Nilsson is the world’s most celebrated micro-photographer.
To put his achievements in historic perspective, we need to remember that at the same time as he was poking about inside the female body with his mini-camera, trying to understand the origins of life, other explorers on the same quest were heading in the opposite direction. Within a few years of Nilsson supplying Life magazine with its foetus cover, the Americans succeeded in getting the first man on the moon, and Neil Armstrong was able to utter that cute sound bite about small steps for man being huge steps for mankind. It was something Nilsson could also have said, were he American, or the sound-bite type.
Among his discoveries, was the revelation that life at the end of a microscope is pretty much indistinguishable from life at the end of a telescope: the galaxy and the atom are parallel universes. And one reason why the tiny foetus on the cover of Life magazine made the impression it did was because this little human, floating across the darkness in his glowing placenta, looked like an astronaut on a spacewalk.
Nilsson is about to publish a new book, a huge tome, also called Life, inside which are 300 full-colour pages of cosmic adventure in which the micro becomes the macro with heart-stopping effectiveness. See those gorgeous coloured rectangles floating across space on the starboard side of the ship? That’s the male hormone, testosterone, looking elegantly psychedelic as it makes men what they are. And those spectacular cloudbursts of blue, yellow and red? That’s the female hormone oestrogen, which causes girls to behave like girls.
Life, the book, doesn’t just take you closer to life the biological process; it explores it from within. Starting with the most basic building bricks of our DNA, with chromosomes and hormones, it tracks the rest of the human journey through its most significant stages – the quest of the sperm, the making of the egg, the foetus in its juices, the brain as a blueberry muffin, human hair as a spooky petrified forest. These amazing sights have been captured with the know-how of a scientist, and revealed to us with the sense of drama of an artist. By the end of my first perusal, I felt emotionally jet-lagged and wobbly.
The Life book has the air of a final statement about it, and since Nilsson was born as long ago as 1922, I set off for Stockholm expecting to encounter a sedate and venerable philosopher who was sharing with us his concluding thoughts on the human mystery. Boy, was I wrong. Stockholm was being battered by a mighty blizzard when I landed, and temperatures were in the low-minus teens. Nilsson sent his assistant to pick me up, a charming Swedish blonde called Anne, whose windscreen wipers were barely moving and whose de-icer had iced up. By the time we reached the Karolinska Institute, where they hand out the Nobel prize for medicine, and where Nilsson has his photographic lair, my nerves were as shattered as the sheets of cholesterol in crystalline form on page 182 of his book.
Anne phoned ahead to tell Nilsson we had arrived and warned me not to get out of the car because of the cold. Okay. By the way, Anne, who is that chap in the brown corduroy suit dancing so nimbly down the treacherous snowy path? “There he is,” she starts, and out I get to meet the world’s youngest 83-year-old, feeling inadequate, cowardly, British and old. He’s not even wearing a hat.
Do you remember Magnus Pyke, that eccentric TV scientist from two decades back, who explained the mysteries of the universe to us by waving his arms around and contorting his face into expressions of comic awe? Well, Nilsson is one of those. They come in one size: tall and lanky. Radiating from this sort of chap, like that ghostly placenta that protects the foetus on the cover of Life, is an enormous sense of fun.
Over meatballs and red cabbage at the campus restaurant, he tells me his story. Nilsson began his photographic career in the 1940s as a journalist specialising in human-interest stories. There was the time he travelled to Nice to photograph Matisse, just before the painter died, and found him fooling about outrageously with his English “nurse”. And when Nikita Khrushchev visited Sweden during the cold war, Nilsson hid in the kitchen and then joined him and the Swedish prime minister for dinner. Khrushchev handed him his cognac, so Nilsson handed him one back. Soon they were all drunkenly belting out Russian folk songs.
His bio-photography experiments began at the end of the 1950s. The first was a commission to photograph the life cycle of plankton. The plankton’s tale, he found, had all the dynamics of a human-interest story – meetings, matings, babies – acted out by amorous glowing blobs. Soon after, he developed his ambition to photograph the human foetus. After years of medical immersion and photographic experimentation, he finally got it right in 1965.
Soon afterwards, he published A Child Is Born, a step-by-step account of a baby’s creation and arrival that is still the bestselling illustrated book of all time. Then he immersed himself in viruses, and 20 years ago became one of the first photographers to capture the HIV virus in action, in a celebrated sequence of photos that now hangs in the corridor of the Karolinska Institute, blown up to poster-size.
“The virus,” he enthuses, jabbing his finger at some lovely blue blobs swarming across a huge white corpuscle at the centre of the action-packed poster sequence, “is a terrorist. The worst terrorist we have!” And these bulbous things here, swirling around the bloodstream like giant bath sponges, are killer cells, the body’s personal secret service, its detectives, its CIA. How many times does this unit of white blood cells tour the body in 24 hours looking for gangsters, outlaws and viruses? Two hundred times!
In Lennart Nilsson’s eyes, the workings of the human body add up not just to a human-interest story, but to the whole of War and Peace. I had asked to see his microscope, the one that can photograph something as tiny as a single angstrom. Since an angstrom is a tenth of a millionth of a metre, that’s pretty small. The microscope lives in the basement, where Nilsson works in a shabby underground cubbyhole, surrounded by unwanted desks, chairs and pipes. He used to work in elegant surroundings in the centre of the institute, but Tube trains passing below would flood his lab with unwanted magnetic fields and shake his camera.
The famous microscope takes a long time to warm up, and when the image finally forms on its flickering black-and-white screen, there’s as much snow obstructing your view as there was on the motorway from the airport. Somewhere inside this million-dollar Japanese contraption, a cluster of lethal bird-flu viruses is attacking a slither of human lung. Nilsson is determined to photograph it clearly so that we humans can see what we’re up against.
Later, he shows me pictures of the H5N1 virus he has taken in Japan with a new extra-strong scanning electron microscope. This one can focus on half an angstrom. The blue blob with the piggy tail that looks like a psychedelic tadpole is the virus, and the cathedral-like structure it is invading are the lungs of an early victim in Hong Kong.
Why is it so important to photograph the H5N1 virus, Lennart? “You can’t fight an enemy you can’t see,” he replies firmly. And he’s off again, forgetting I’m there, frantically spinning his focus wheel, darting across the screen, finding, zooming, framing, making the inwisible wisible.