23 June 2008

Meeting Lennart Nilsson, 30 May 2008

Photo©Lennart Nilsson - cover of the book Någonstans i Stockholm

Old Town, Riddarholmen, City Hall… the water. The city outside my metro window. It is early summer in Stockholm and it feels almost a little solemn. I am on track to meet Master photographer Lennart Nilsson, who once amazed the world with his cover story for Life Magazine - ‘The Drama of Life before Birth’ and his famous book “A Child is Born”(1965). In 1980 he was also the first photographer to receive The Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography.

Lennart Nilsson has an exhibition currently on show at Kulturhuset in Sergels Torg which is open throughout the summer( 31 May-7 September) Truthfully it is not Lennart Nilsson's photos about the beginning of life that are in the spotlight; it is “Stockholm in the 1940-1950's” when Nilsson worked as a photojournalist for various newspapers and magazines.

Photo: Ulf Fågelhammar

Photo: Ulf Fågelhammar

During the press show Lennart Nilsson generously shares his experiences of the scenarios the photos depict. They are of a Stockholm unmarked by the horrors of World War II, a secret place far from the metropolis that we now know. Lennart Nilsson experienced the small everyday events and turned them into grand photography. His exhibition "Somewhere in Stockholm" (Någonstans i Stockholm) is a gift to those who love this form of art.

For my meeting with Mr Nilsson I brought along a book by Kurt Bergengren called "Thinking With Your Eyes." I wanted to quote a few lines that Bergengren wrote in 1955 about Nilsson. Kurt Bergengren was a brilliant writer who for three decades (1950-1984) wrote about photography mainly in the newspaper Aftonbladet. His texts are perhaps the most important literature written about photography in Sweden. Lennart Nilsson’s eyes immediately caught sight of the book: "Kurt Bergengren and I were closely acquainted for many years” he exclaims. “We spoke at length on the subject of photography. A 'quick writing with light' he reminisces.

I met up with him on numerous occasions during the time I worked with the Life of the Cells. He was very interested in this as well as the subject of people as social beings. Kurt articulated himself earnestly and with style.We always spoke sincerely to each other.

We would often meet in the middle of the day for long discussions.

He would say:

- Lennart my friend, I think we should have breakfast.

- Breakfast? But it’s half past one? I queried.
- Yes, but we should still go for breakfast he responded."

Mr Nilsson continues with his story:
"We went to a place in Drottninggatan that Kurt liked. He worked on the evening paper Aftonbladet and needed to relax. His own images were strange - his shots were taken closely to the objects. They were images from the Roslagen Archipelago - pictures of the house he lived in and of the water. He would say that the pictures were nothing special, but they were remarkable because they were taken by Kurt, and they were of his vision "

Photo©Lennart Nilsson

Mr Nilsson recalls when he went to Berns (with its restaurants and cafes to feel at one with the people there). "There were newly loved up couples but also those who had been together for a long time. Of the latter couples I observed many where she looked in one direction and he looked in the other. I took quite a few such images.
It was fascinating because they were not aware of me taking their pictures.“

We talk about a picture called "Cay in her morning walk."
The picture shows how Cay walks by a few homeless people sleeping rough. I asked Mr Nilsson if his idea was to make social commentary. "No it was simply her walk (she handed out newspapers). I looked at the picture again today - he says. "It was okay that I used the flash, I remember. Cay went past and it was genuine. I often find it strange that you can depict something in such a short time."

We converse about the Swedish photographer Georg Oddner. A movie about Oddner bears the title "Only the moment lives - and the moment is eternity" I ask Lennart Nilsson how he looks at the magic of the moment:

"I think of a picture by Oddner, a man and a wave above his head. How did you do it? I asked him once. 'Oh, it was just…it was just a "shoot".' There was nothing strange, he thought. But I think that I have never seen such a picture before. It was not a staged, it was genuine. He told me how he had done it - he was just passing by…”

“At Magasin 3 Art Museum Oddner in 2003 exhibited hundreds of images in a small format and they told a wonderful story about Georg himself. He was a man who captured the moment. During the 1940’s-50’s Oddner was in the United States where he created some of his best pictures.”

Mr Nilsson recalls when he made a commercial of a well known perfume cooperating with Richard Avedon and Sven Nykvist. "He had many Swedes there (one of them was Georg Oddner), he liked to have them around. Avedon’s place was filled with palms. It was very special. He was diligent and worked right up until the end. He died from a brain hemorrhage when photographing."

Photo©Lennart Nilsson

I ask Lennart Nilsson how he feels about seeing his pictures at Kulturhuset so many years after they were created. They represent an important period in his life as a photographer:
”Jeppe Wikström head of Max Ström book publisher had seen the picture of women kneeling and cleaning the giant floor of Stockholm's Central Station.

I took the pictures around 1943. I made a reportage about the Central Station. To me it was nothing extraordinary, because that was what happened then. But when Wikström saw the picture, he said 'this is a book'. I had never thought of making a book about Stockholm. I have never 'done Stockholm' as a photographer; I have devoted myself to reportage."

Lennart Nilsson tells about his images of the "slum sisters" of the Salvation Army. "I can't forget them. They had a genuine humanity and concern for those who were fatherless. One time I went to the Children’s Hospital at Södersjukhuset with a slum sister. We knocked on the door and walked in. Inside we saw four feet sticking out from under a sofa. The children thought their father was coming. When we met the mother, we could see that she had been badly beaten but she protested that she had walked into a door.

Photo©Lennart Nilsson

I accompanied the slum sisters when they took the children to Oscarsson's warehouse to get some clothes. To see the look on these two eight and nine-year-old boys’ faces when they received clothes- I will never forget it.
The kids were used to me and my camera. They didn’t mind if I photographed them in the streets or anywhere else. We went in to Oscarsson’s and they got their clothes. It is a strange thing, which will not happen today. But it was thanks to the slum sisters that they got some help.

It was not an extraordinary reportage. I made such reportages all around Sweden. It was a time when the slum sisters were needed. Imagine how miserable people were back then! There was a sofa in the large room and two chairs and the kitchen was a wood stove and I thought back then that it was appalling. I think about this family often."

I ask about Mr Nilsson's pictures of Siri Sundström, midwife in a remote region of northern Sweden. Lennart Nilsson says that there is a connection with the reportage and the fact that he then went on to explore how life begins, even down to the microscopic cell.

"I made pictures about Einar Wallqvist, called Lappmarksdoktorn for the magazine Husmodern. Einar Wallqvist said one day: 'I have a midwife here called Siri Sundström. She has delivered over a thousand babies and there are only some 4,000 people living here.' So I went to meet her. She was a quiet woman, with calm eyes. She was very active and also owned a cinema. Her husband was short and lively with a bit of Sami blood. His job was to tear the tickets. She managed the projector - she did everything."
Photo©Lennart Nilsson

We talk about another picture at the exhibition depicting a part of the process of printing banknotes. A worker is looking in to sheets being dried. I perceive it as a "potent image". I ask whether it is possible to make images aesthetically beautiful, while depicting a process in reportage-- how do you do it?

"I made them like I did up in northern Norway. The fishermen who dried fish. I followed their work process and thought of it as a composition. They hung up the fish in a special way. And it was the same here. I followed the banknotes process. How a banknote is made, and how they eventually were burnt."

I ask Lennart Nilsson what he thinks of today's photography. How he feels about it and how much he follows it. "No one can depict reality - I have spoken to many about this. But the lenses, including the digitals can come very close. You should not be against the digital. It creates new opportunities to depict rapid processes. Bam bam bam! You press the button, brrrrrrm, and then use the best picture. I am very fond of looking at the photos in the newspaper´s sports pages! "

"In the past it was perhaps more like the way Irving Penn worked - I knew him well. He worked with two Rolleiflex, black and white film, 400 ASA and had two assistants. It was very quiet in his studio on Fifth Avenue in New York. His studio was at the top of the building to let in as much light as possible. I was there for a portrait. Irving invited me for coffee, it was cheerful and nice and he was relaxed. Penn's brown eyes and wonderfully keen gaze was so full of life and filled with desire for the positive.

So he says ' we can start now Lennart. I will take some pictures of you' - and it is completely quiet. He comes very close; I had a look at the F-stops. He began with a fifteenth of a second, so he went down to a quarter of a second in the last pictures. When the camera had to be replaced an assistant had already loaded it in silence. Another assistant controlled the light and adjusted the camera.

Irving himself did none of that. But he came close; there were no telephoto lens. It was normal focal length. He worked with the daylight. But he could screen it off a little bit and he said to me; ' Think of something fun. Hold your hand like this'.
Yes, he came very close. So it was more a portrait of Irving himself. Ingmar Bergman once said to me, 'everything you do is a portrait of yourself'."

Photo©Lennart Nilsson

Mr Nilsson returns to Kurt Bergengren: "Kurt was an incredibly lively man, a great thinker about photography. When we discussed photos he had taken depicting some stones, he said time is captured in these.' Harry Martinsson said that stones are the oldest things we have. Bergengren was proud of his photographic images, but they were not remarkable. But when he talked about them I got a feeling of a strong perception of the light's impact on a subject. It was there in force."

I ask Lennart Nilsson about his current projects: "I keep working on a television film produced by the public service corporation UR and the production company Agaton Film & Television. It is about cells, I work with a professor at the Karolinska Institutet and he has an idea that each cell is like a city. Like Paris or New York."

Mr Nilsson says that he is obviously going to continue to photograph (despite his 85 years). "It is precisely that - the human being, life unnoticed, that is what applies. That is what Kurt Bergengren also mentioned when we met on Drottninggatan and had breakfast. The light and the motive, it was sacred to him- the time in a picture. He thought it was strange to be able to expose and maintain a life. He liked to show me his pictures - it was so good to hear him expressing himself on his intentions. Then I thought he was fantastic."

Lennart Nilsson. Photo:Ulf FÅgelhammar

I return to the question of what makes a picture:
Lennart Nilsson tells me about when he worked for Life Magazine. "At Life Magazine they said: 'Lennart there are things that are very well known to us. Try to do that. But do it your way. Try to do it your way.' For them, it was important to surprise. I had a very good relationship with the Chief Editor of Life Magazine.

We made the "world's first picture" of raindrops on Surtsey (the new island that was created outside of Iceland). We had the raindrop in the forefront and you could see the lava during the eruption in the background - Life made the picture a cover.
I once phoned Life and asked, 'Can we afford to rent an airplane?' The reply was: 'Never discuss the economy, just do it Lennart'. But there was only one thing - you were not allowed to fail! "

I asked if he was not nervous his camera would break or stop working close to the volcano. "Yes, there was no exposure meter in those days. I made pictures using a special technique and got these macro images of raindrops. The image needed to be exposed so that you could see the lava. And it went well."

Photo©Lennart Nilsson

The time is soon up for the interview and we get interrupted. Lennart Nilsson says that we have just begun: "We have five hours left." I say that I do not want to exhaust Lennart but he responds quickly - "You can never do that. On the contrary, this is stimulating. We have a common acquaintance-Kurt Bergengren, one of the greatest writers about photography."

The meeting with Lennart Nilsson, a fascinating man and a Master photographer, is over. It was here and gone. Like a moment.

- Ulf Fågelhammar

Lennart Nilsson official homepage: www.lennartnilsson.com
The book "Någonstans i Stockholm" (Somewhere in Stockholm), published by Max Ström
- My thanks to Göran Berselius, Felicia Fågelhammar, Baba Epega, Estefanía Castellon, Rhonda Prince, Anne Fjellström, Kristina Billow, Catharina Nilsson and of course Lennart Nilsson himself for making this interview possible.

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