The Shutter of Death, Encyclopedia of Optography

Derek Ogbourne

A: Alexandridis, 75

G: Gala, 81

D: Dalí, 77

(Rather chaotic tone on Gala + Dalí's part)

G: Digamé

A: Hello, hello, is that Gala?

G: Yes. Who is this?

A: My Name is Evangelos Alexandridis, I am scientist from Germany. I have a request for Mr Dalí that I think he would be interested in ... Can I talk to him ... is he there?

G: Well can you tell me something more, what's it all about?

A: I'd like to speak with Mr Dalí about optograms, Its kind of experiments I've done to fix the retinal image at the very moment of death.

G: Well, eh, just a minute. Just one second. I'll get him (Gala and

Dalí in the background indistinct).

Pause ... background noises

Dalí picks up the phone

D: Quién es. Who is this?

A: Hello, hello, Mr Dalí, this is ...

(Overlapping above)

D: Who is this?

A: Mr Dalí this is a Evangelos Alexandridis,

D: (Interrupting) Yes this is Salvador Dali, Yes, yes.

A: My name is Evangelos Alexandridis I'm a scientist, a physiologist, Mr Dalí I am making experiments that, that I call optograms.

D: I can't, Mr Alexandridis, I can't hear you very well. Can you speak up?

A: Ms...Hello is that (Telephone beep) Mr Dalí can you here me now Mr Dalí?

D: Yes, yes, yes that is fine.

A: Yes, as I said before I want to introduce a kind of experimental process that is called optography this is the very special method to create pictures out from an image that is preserved in the dead animals eyes by the very moment of death.

D + G: Gala speaks to Dalí in the background (Dalí is briefly distracted)

D: Photograms, what are these photograms?

A: No, no, no, no. It's not called photograms, it's called optograms. t's a certain scientific method to preserve the retinal image, post-death. So what it is I can take photos with living eyes!

D: But Mr Alexandris ... Where did you get my number?

A: Oh Mr Dalí, I have to apologise, I currently wrote to you.

D: Did you? Eh, eh, wait a moment. Yes, yes I do remember something like this

(Dalí looks for the letter)

D: Your name again?

A: My name is Alexandridis. I work at the University of Heidelberg.

D: Momento.

(Dalí looks for the letter speaking with Gala).

D: Yes, it is here, we haven't opened it. Mr Alexandridis what do you want of me?

A: Mr Dalí I'm working, I'm working on optograms and I thought you might me very interested in what optograms are because I know your artworks have so many eyes in and I thought would like to see my images and maybe then we could create optograms together.... And it might be a new, new accent of your wonderful works.

D: If this is true, what you say, this does interest me ... er ... a bit but er, I have er, read about this somewhere. But er ... Why are you doing these optograms?

A: Mr Dalí, I can assure you that it is absolutely true what I told you because the police here in Heidelberg asked me to investigate whether the image in a dead man's eyes could reveal the murderer after a crime. So, my experiment was with an animal. My experiment was with rabbit. I want you Mr Dalí to choose an image as the last picture in a rabbit's eye, in a condemned rabbit's eye.

D: Eh, I see eh... Mr Alexandridis, can you wait a minute?

A: Yes, yes Mr Dalí.

D: Wait five minutes, and you ring me back in five minutes.


D: Can you do this?

D: OK, yes, five minutes. Thank you Mr Dalí, five minutes.

D + A put the receiver down. A calls D.

Phone rings.

D: Dígame?

A: Hello Mr Dalí, it's Mr Alexandridis again.

D: Ah yes, now, now um Mr Alexandridis. Carrying on from what we were talking about a minute ago, I think um I would like you to write down, I have here an image but you have to write it down. Can you get a pen or something and write what I say ....

A: Yes, Hold on a moment, I get a pen

(Alexandridis looks for a pen)

A: OK ... Mr ...

D: (Interrupts) Do you have a pen?

A: Dalí, I am ready .... I have a pen, yes ...... OK


Dalí Plays God
God plays Dalí

No, I tell you what, this is better:

Dalí is God
God is Dalí
Dalí is Dog
Dalí is God
Is Dalí God
Is Dalí Dog

D: Have you written this down?

A: Yes, Mr Dalí I think I've got it.

D: Then you have my image. Thank you Mr Alexandridis, good bye.

A: But Mr Dalí, Mr Dalí you can't hang up the phone. What am I supposed to do now?

Heidelberg 2007

It all started about seven years ago. It was a small article in a Time-Life book that got me obsessed about optography:

A Jesuit Friar called Christopher Schiener made an amazing observation in the mid 17th Century whereby he had observed an image laid bare on the retina of a frog, a faint, fleeting record of what the eye had been fixed on at the moment its owner had died. It was rumoured it became possible to fix this image and create what is termed an Optogram. (Time-Life, 1970)

Soon after reading the above, I contacted the Institute of Ophthalmology, London. They knew nothing about the phenomena but this did not stop me wanting to know more about optography. To my amazement, I found very little at the time. Although the image of the killer in the dead man's eye has held steady within popular myth since the 860's and James Joyce, amongst other writers, makes reference to optography in Ulysses, the Internet had only one article: 'Optograms and Fiction' by Dr. Arthur B Evans, featured in this book. This still left me unsure up until very recently as to whether these strange traces of the external world could be produced at all.

Just prior to my new interest in all things optographic, I had been working on a project with the artist Brian Williams called 'Frankenstein's Kitchen', an art project that was about making a living self-sustaining sculpture, or a form that had properties that behaved like a living system. It was a natural evolution from my painting onwards to gravitate towards the organic, the physical, the close up, as well as the persistent fascination with very small units of time, all clearly present in the recent drawings and videos.

I came to a dead end with my research and my desire to actually produce optograms came to a halt mainly down to ethical grounds in dealing with grant bodies and institutions. At that point, my grant applications were alluding to an intent to actually produce optograms. My recent acquisition of two rabbits, Jessica and Cinnamon, now offers tantalising possibilities, but I have a conflict of intent, I don't think you should kill for art's sake.

Six or so years passed, many video works.

In June 2005, I was in an art show at the Brigitte Schenk Gallery, Cologne. On telling one of my fellow participating artists, Thom Kubli, about optography, by some sort of morphic resonance it turned out that his mother had met the scientist Dr. Alexandridis when he had had a crash in the snow with some friends right in front of her house in Heidelberg.

This rekindled my interest in optography after a few years of sabbatical. I wrote to Dr. Alexandridis, I gather probably the only person alive now who has actually produced optograms. He kindly agreed to see me with Thom in Heidelberg. We were now like fans (see conversation on page 18).

The Physiologist Wilhelm Kühne had made the first and most successful visually identifiable optograms recorded as drawings in the late 1870's in Heidelberg. He had also obtained the only known 'Human Optogram' in a nearby town of Bruchsal (see page 18).

My trip was set at long last. I was an artist explorer, a detective bringing form to the formless. Being a romantic I wanted to go where it had all happened.

In early June 2006, I made a visit to the University City of Heidelberg with the intention of documenting further my research into optography and its main protagonists.

My mission in Heidelberg was twofold: to visit Dr. Alexandridis in order to establish once and for all whether it was really possible to produce optograms and to investigate 'The Human Optogram', a rather amorphous drawing recovered by George Wald in 1953. This led me to the small town of Bruchsal where a young man (I now know his name was Erhard Gustav Reif) was executed in 1880 for murder. His retina was extracted by Kühne and the optogram revealed. I traced the old prison and the site where the guillotine was placed and I interviewed Dr. Erich Viehöfer, the curator of a prison museum nearby in Ludwigsburg, and a local historian, Thomas Moos, in Bruchsal. learnt that the process of obtaining optograms was straightforward and not rocket science but more akin to an amateur photographic lab with red safe light. I left with a borrowed set of four optograms made in 1975 by Dr. Alexandridis that appear in my 'Museum of Optography' shows. The Human Optogram story was and still is a detective story about a man, Erhard Gustav Reif, who after his wife's death had killed his two children in the Old Rhine faced his death without a concept that an artist a hundred and twenty-seven years later would be remotely viewing his last moments and seeing the last thing he saw as he, with remorse of his crime, ceased to be. His retina, drawn by William Kühne, appears in this book and is the only human optogram available.

My research has continued in London with the generous assistance of Alexandra Veith, a librarian at The Medical Library in Heidelberg, who passes me little gems of archival material every now and then.

The 'Museum of Optography' is a series of art shows that explore optography's visual extrapolations, playing with myth, romanticism, science and perception towards a body of work that constitutes a visual and auditory archive, some elements of which appear in this book.

What fascinates me about optography is that the optogram exists within the fine line between being and not being. It is within every gaze that contemplates death. We imagine death, we imagine when and where. This project is about imagination and death. As a poetic metaphor, optography suggests a series of associations: the eye is a camera; the eyelid, the shutter, the moment of retreat into the internal, the virtual and eventually, a real death moment. It was apt that the mode of execution in Bruchsal was by guillotine, the fall of the blade echoing the fall of the shutter. The dying gaze captured in the instant of separation of head from body. How close was Barthes to the truth with his Camera Lucida, where he equated photography with death.

To produce optograms now is to kill the myth. Therefore the ambiguity becomes more interesting, although as I have mentioned earlier the process is very simple, albeit unpredictable with result.

The Shutter of Death, Encyclopedia of Optography started as an alternative way of presenting the hundred and forty retinal drawings I had produced in two sketchbooks for the first of my Museum of Optography shows at the Brigitte Schenk Gallery, Cologne. Books have to go to press and the research is continuous, so this is a snapshot from varied disciplines approaching the same subject, a subject that is complicit in the blink of an eye. These insights into the various histories that form the myth and the reality of the optogram are from the following contributors: Dr. Evangelos Alexandridis, Dr. Arthur B. Evans, Dr. Andrea Goulet, Bill Jay, Professor Richard Kremer; Dr. Ali Hossaini; Dr. Susana Medina, and artists Paul Sakoilsky and Thom Kubli. Thanks to all for contributing to this book.

Derek Ogbourne, 2007

Addendum to the Museum of Optography

There is often a confusion as to what an optogram actually is, firstly this book contains photographs of optograms, no optograms actually exist due to the fleeting and difficult to capture nature of the image, further, as regards preservation it is unclear as to whether the image could have been permanently 'fixed' with the technology the 1970's by Evangelos Alexandridis, if not today. An analogy I often use is that of when your arm is pressed up against a textured object and the imprint temporarily marks the flesh. Your flesh has memory as to its natural form. It is the unconscious involuntary function of the brain that puts things right. The eye containing the retina by comparison is a complex organ considered at some evolutionary point as being part of, or an extension of the brain, maybe evolving from voluntary to involuntary working as a receptor of light. The image is formed on the retina regardless of what our brain tells us is in front of us. We close our eyes consciously or as motor reflex depending on the situation. When we go to sleep we place the lens cap until another day. In this way the eye resembles the camera.

Photographing the fundus of the eye is standard practice in the living and dead person. Of course here we do not get an optogram, however with a laser scanning ophthalmoscope it is possible to watch what is watched by the subject in real time. An experiment was conducted where a Disney film was projected onto a child's retina and simultaneously viewed via a laser scanning ophthalmoscope on a TV monitor. I have seen the type of image produced by this method, it resembled security camera footage and unremarkable from an artists point of view.

In 1971, Prof. Uday B Sheorey of the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India. In his paper, Clinical assessment of rhodopsin in the eye. Using a standard fundus camera and a photographic technique took photos of the living rhodopsin (pigmentary photoreceptor cells in the retina bleached by light) after the fundus was bleached by a short intense flashes of light projected through an image of a set of bars. This was pure capture of the afterimage.

Rhodopsin or Visual Purple used as photographic emulsion as analogous to silver halide was first demonstrated by George Wald and two associates where he had extracted the light sensitive red pigment of rod vision from the retinas of cattle. Mixed with gelatine and then spread on celluloid, dried and then exposed to a pattern of black and white stripes. When the film was wetted in the dark with hydroxylamine, the rhodopsin bleached in the same pattern. As we well know the photographic image presents us with the idea of the death moment of time (Barthes) and it acts also as to remind us of a past time of life with cold objectivity. It is a challenge for the photographer to bring life in the mind to the lifeless. Optography shares the same cold objectivity, a lab experiment involving a device to capture light with the image 'fixed' with chemicals under a coloured light, potassium hydroxide used rather than developer and fixer, however the power of the idea of Optography transcends the Turin shroud like primitive results it produces to bring us a sort of wish fulfilment connected with mortality of our living existence. A myth we would like to believe because is acknowledges our existence in our minds eye.

Raw digital data in terms of rows of binary numbers are the first stage of computer software processing, the retina acts in a similar way, the translation being done by the brain. The computer computes the code into recognisable forms based on learning inputted by man. (see Ali Hossaini's text about convergent technologies). The image on the retina is photographed. The photograph gives us a rough interpretation of what was seen by the eye. The printed image has gone trough multiple stages of processing whether on a computer screen or in the form of a photograph to take it further away from the how the brain originally interpreted the scene. From Brain to Brain via all over the place. A journey that distorts the truth, no straight line. The Ideas explored in the Encyclopedia of Optography follow the same process. The tale of optography, needs a private eye, a subjective eye, an objective eye and most importantly an active imagination. The extrapolations are endless. What is an optogram? Well this the least absorbing thing about optography, it is how the mind continues the tale or edits the myth we have, as most evident with the French Gothic literature of the 19th century, worldwide press coverage (at the time) and its close ties with criminology all blend fact, fiction and imagination.

Derek Ogbourne 2008