Commemorating 100 Years of Hasselblad Nature Photographer Sven Gillsäter

Swedish photographer and a friend to Victor Hasselblad, Sven Gillsäter attributed Victor’s early book Flyttfågelstråk (Migratory Bird Passage, 1935) to having a significant influence on his passion for nature photography. Seventeen years later, in 1952, while on a photo assignment on the Swedish island of Öland, Sven and Victor met and with a shared interest in nature and photography, they became close friends. As co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Sweden in 1971, Sven’s passion for nature photography went hand in hand with being an early pioneer in environmental concern and sustainability. Since the early 50’s until the day he stopped taking pictures in 1990, Sven used Hasselblad cameras to capture stunning wildlife photography from all corners of the globe, spanning from Indonesia and Australia to Antarctica to the African savanna and the coasts of the Galápagos Islands.

SVEN’S EARLY CONNECTION

WITH PHOTOGRAPHY AND NATURE

Born in 1921 in Njutånger, Hälsingland, Sweden, Sven discovered his passion for photography as a teenager when he received his first camera from his uncle. When he was called to fulfill his military service, he became the official photographer for his division. After two years in the army, he became an apprentice to Sven Hörnell, a successful landscape and mountain photographer. Growing up on the countryside, living in and protecting the vast wilderness in Northern Sweden during his service, and working alongside Hörnell above the Arctic Circle all most likely contributed to his passion and conviction for nature and wildlife photography, in addition to nature conservation.

The first reference by Sven to his connection with the Hasselblad camera is from 1948 when he endorsed Victor’s first consumer model (later called the 1600F) during the launch, saying, “It is clearly a very clever system, created by a photographer with the same interest of birds and animals as myself.” Allegedly Sven was one of the first to try the new camera.

HOW SVEN AND VICTOR MET

“A growing leisurely interest in any topic leads to more in-depth studies. One of the books that came to have significant influence on my hobby-interest was Flyttfågelstråk (Migratory bird passage) in which the author/photographer already in the introduction complains that the pictures do not meet his standards*. To me they were fantastic. I realized that only with time would I be able to take those kinds of pictures… Following that book, I became even more attentive to the name Victor Hasselblad in the by-line of bird photos in both encyclopedias and nature study books.”

– Sven Gillsäter, written later on in 1970 in the Hasselblad publication Djur i natur (Animals in Nature)

*Victor’s book Flyttfågelstråk was made in 1935 shooting mostly with Leica, before he introduced his first dream camera.

Sven (left) and Victor (right)

Clearly, Sven was aware of Victor Hasselblad’s name early on as a bird photographer and highly admired his work. In 1952, Sven was on a photo assignment documenting migrating cranes on the Swedish island of Öland with his Hasselblad 1600F with a Sonnar 250 mm lens. It was here that Sven and Victor had a chance encounter, bumping into each other by some haystacks on the island’s small coastal town Hulterstad, where the cranes’ passages southward are formed. His interest in that part of Sweden was inspired by Victor’s books and photographs, which eventually led to a coffee table book on the island, Öland – Nattviol och näktergal (1983) (Öland – Night violet and nightingale).

“Our friendship developed and was built not on business-related exchanges but on nature conservation and photo-related challenges,” Sven wrote later on in his book Urtid i nutid – Galápagos (1986). Socializing together with their families throughout the 1960s and 70s, the two became good friends, spending much time at the Hasselblad residence in Råö.

SVEN AND VICTOR’S PHOTO EXPEDITIONS

In 1978, Sven guided Victor and Erna on a three-week expedition through Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. With Victor’s dream to document all of the different gulls that existed at the time, this was his opportunity to add the Dolphin and Lava Gulls to his collection.

Sven and Victor had multiple photo expeditions on their list together, including the Arctic, Greenland and the Antarctic. Unfortunately, cancer put an end to those plans, and Victor passed away just a few months after they got back from the Galápagos.

Victor Hasselblad photographing
on the Galápagos Islands

COMMEMORATING 100 YEARS OF SVEN GILLSÄTER

Born on 28 February 1921, we celebrate the centennial year in 2021 of revered nature photographer Sven Gillsäter, an avid Hasselblad user and close friend to Victor Hasselblad. In 1956, he got his big break as a nature and wildlife photographer with an extensive trip to the Far East, Indonesia and Australia in addition to as a writer with his book Öga för Öga (We ended in Bali, 1959), showcasing the regions’ native animals.

As a talented nature photographer, his images made the cover multiple times on the Hasselblad magazine Forum along with various corporate publications. He also wrote and/or illustrated approximately twenty books, twenty or so documentary TV-films, and hundreds of articles. Additionally, he was part of the founding members of TIO fotografer, the Swedish photography collective equivalent of the international photo group Magnum. With Sven’s suggestion, Victor Hasselblad created a scholarship endowment for a promising young nature and wildlife photographer with an interest in conservation in 1975. Awarded by Naturfotograferna, it was discontinued when the Hasselblad Foundation instituted the Hasselblad Award in 1981.

From the early 1950s, Sven really only used Hasselblad cameras – the 1600F, 500C, 500EL and the 2000FC – until he stopped taking pictures around 1990.  

Sven passed away on 11 October 2001 at 80 years old.

In September 2021, a portrayal of Sven’s life and legacy will be published, called Med kamera om halsen. En bok om Sven Gillsäter, fotograf och världsresenär på 1900-talet. Find more information and images by Sven Gillsäter here.

Sven, early 1950s
Sven, circa 1968/69
Sven with a mocking bird
on the Galápagos, circa 1968/69

See two scanned issues of Djur i nature, with text (Swedish) and most images taken by Sven Gillsäter.

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