Optography and optograms

What is the last thing we see before death? For a long time scientists have wondered whether, since the eye is like a camera, it might be possible to capture an image of our final vision. Derek Ogbourne, an artist in whose work eyes are a common recurring motif, has been using the resources of the BOA Museum and Library to explore the story of this fascinating though macabre science.

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It is claimed that in the mid 17th century a Jesuit friar called Christopher Schiener observed a faint and all too fleeting image laid bare on the retina of a dissected frog. This would appear to be one of the earliest references concerning an optographic image. In the years that followed various imaginative literary and philosophical works considered the theory of capturing this image and what such an 'optogram' might tell us.

Wilhelm K├╝hne (1837-1900)
Wilhelm Kühne (1837-1900)

The birth of photography in the 1840s introduced the concept of fixing an image produced by a lens to produce a permanent picture. In the 1870s and 1880s a German physiologist, Wilhelm Kühne, devised a process to preserve details of the retina of the eye, at least temporarily, by use of chemical fixatives. His process exploited the retinal substance rhodopsin (or 'Visual Purple') first discovered by Professor Franz Boll in Rome in 1876 and which, even after death, bleaches when it reacts to the light transmitted through the crystalline lens. In order to observe and fix this photo-chemical reaction the eye had to be extracted for treatment very quickly after death.

Optogram of a rabbit 1878
One of Kühne's rabbit
optograms, 1878

Kühne's experiments grew out of an accidental observation of the shape of a gas flame from his laboratory on the retina of a frog. His experiments to confirm this observation were mainly on rabbits he had placed in front of a bright window, but included one infamous human subject. The resulting images were called optogramms (sic). An optogram appears as a white image on a red or purple background. Unlike a photographic negative the light and dark areas are not reversed. They were not very stable and soon faded.

Here is Kühne's description of one of his experiments from the English translation of his book to be found in the BOA Library's Historical Collection 2:

An albino rabbit, after being kept 15 min. in the dark, was decapitated; one eye was removed from the head under sodium light...and fastened onto the edge of a cork by means of needles...[The eye was placed in a] dark chamber with the cornea pressing softly against the diaphragm. The image was visible on the sclerotic, on one side of the optic nerve...that I was sure that it fell on the more deeply coloured division of the retina and could readily mark its place in the appropriate quadrant. Thereupon the yellow curtain was removed from the pane and the eye after five minutes' exposure was taken away, divided along the equator and examined in feeble gaslight....I brought the preparation out into darkened daylight and shewed it to several witnesses. There was evident on the retina a most distinct brighter diffused spot, the small dimension of which corresponded to those of the image previously seen by me, and the position of which made me already sure that it was the optogram.

The idea that one's eye preserves the very last moment of life held a very powerful hold on the Victorian imagination. In particular it was suggested that optograms might be obtained from murder victims to help identify their assailant. This rather assumed they would have been attacked from the front at close quarters! From newspaper reports we know that in April 1877, only partly aware of what optography involved, police in Berlin photographed the eye of the murdered Frau von Sabatzky in case it could be of use. We know that news of the German experiments even reached London and that detectives investigating the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888 were presented with a proposal to try the technique. We do not know that this ever happened. Whether or not it was even attempted is highly questionable. Of course it would only have been effective if a victim were to be discovered and operated upon within moments of the killing. The popular science fiction writer Jules Verne perpetuated the idea that the science of optography might have forensic potential in his Les Frères Kip (1902). Almost a whole century after the origin of the technique, in 1975, the police in Heidelberg, Germany, invited the physiologist Evangelos Alexandridis at the university's Department of Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology to re-evaluate Kühne's experiments with a view to learning whether they might have a useful role in forensic investigations. Not without controversy, he produced a small number of optograms from rabbits which had been anaesthetised and placed in front of panels bearing high-contrast patterns or images (one of which was a portrait of Salvador Dali) before being killed. Some of the resulting retinal images were preserved by being photographed. This was the last occasion on which serious scientific research into optography took place.

Reif optogram sketch
Reif optogram sketch

The one and only case of a 'Human Optogram' is therefore that of Erhard Gustav Reif in November 1880. A murderer who had drowned his children in the Old Rhine, he was executed by guillotine in the prison yard in the small German town of Bruchsal. His left eye was extracted within ten minutes of the sentence being carried out. Reif's optogram, some 4mm in height, does not survive, merely a simple sketch drawing taken from it. Look at the reproduction of this sketch on the left taken from Kühne's Observations for Anatomy and Physiology of the Retina published in 1881. It has a superficial resemblance to a guillotine blade although the victim's eyes were bandaged seconds before the blade fell. Possibly they are the steps he had to ascend shortly beforehand.


Derek Ogbourne

Derek Ogbourne was born in 1964 and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art. He has had solo exhibitions in London, Southampton and Cologne as well as contributions to group exhibitions in several countries. His Museum of Optography (2007) exhibited the Salvador Dali optograms for the first time. He now teaches drawing and video and lives in North West London. Derek developed an installation piece for temporary display at the BOA Museum, The MicroMuseum of Optography (September 2008-March 2009).




Further study:

Evans, A.B., 1993, 'Optograms and Fiction: Photo in a Dead Man's Eye', Science-Fiction Studies XX:3 341-61. This article is available online

Kühne, W, 1878, On the Photochemistry of the Retina and on Visual Purple, (trans. by Michael Foster) MacMillan, London. This book is available in the College library

Kühne, W, 1881, Beobachtungen zur Anatomie und Physiolgie der Retina (Observations for Anatomy and Physiology of the Retina), Heidelberg

Ogbourne, D, 2007, The Shutter of Death: An Investigation into Optography, Valencia (ISBN 0-9554796-3-0)

Ogbourne, D, 2008, The Encyclopedia of Optography, Muswell Press. This book is available in the College library

Ogbourne, D, 2010, Der letzte Blick - Museum of Optography = Derek Ogbourne the last view - Museum of Optography, Kurpfalzischen Museum, Heidelberg. This exhibition catalogue is available in the College library