Optography

For hundreds of years, people had wondered whether it might be possible to capture an image of our last vision at the point of death, such idea  was a frequent plot device in fiction during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the extent that police photographed the victims’ eyes in several real-life murder investigations, in case the theory was true. The idea behind optography dates back to the 17th century when a friar named Christopher Schiener noticed a strange image in the eye of a dead frog.

It wasn’t until the invention of photography in the 1840s, however, that “optography” emerged as a scientific pursuit. The German physiologist Wilhelm Kühne began preserving eyeballs and believed that eye worked like a camera, and that a certain chemical found in the retina could cause a reaction similar to that of a photographic negative. His most successful optogram was obtained from an albino rabbit, with its head fastened to face a barred window. The rabbit’s head was covered for several minutes to allow rhodopsin to accumulate on the retina. It was then uncovered for three minutes to expose it to the light, then decapitated and its eyeball sliced from top to bottom. The rear half of the eye was placed in an alum solution to enable fixation of the bleached rhodopsin, which resulted in a distinct image of the barred windows.

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Kühne was satisfied with the results and wanted to try his experiment on a human subject next. His opportunity arose in 1880, when a man named Erhard Gustav Reif was sentenced to death by guillotine after drowning his two young sons in the river.  Kühne immediately retrieved the murderer’s decapitated head, removed the eyeballs, and reported seeing “violent and disturbing movements” on the dead man’s retina. The ambiguity of these images was attributed to the fact that the prisoner was blindfolded at the moment of his death.

Jules Verne even wrote about it in a novel called Les Frères Kip. The practice’s potential freaked out murderers of the day, causing some to destroy their victims’ eyes for fear of being caught in the retinal frame.

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Other similar experiments were carried out in the 1880s and 1890s. It was even suggested that an optogram should be produced from the eye of Mary Jane Kelly, one of Jack the Ripper’s victims. Ripperologist James Stewart-Gordon believed the technique was attempted on Annie Chapman as well. A rare case of forensic optography being admitted as evidence occurred in late 1924, after German merchant Fritz Angerstein had been charged with killing eight members of his family and household staff. Professor Doehne of the University of Cologne photographed the retinas of two of the victims, yielding what he claimed were images of Angerstein’s face and an axe used to kill the gardener. Angerstein was tried, convicted and executed, with Doehne’s optographic images included amongst other evidence in the case.

The last serious scientific attempt at retrieving images from retinas took place in 1975 when police in Heidelberg, Germany, invited the physiologist Evangelos Alexandridis to repeat Kuhne’s experiments. Like Kühne, Alexandridis successfully produced a number of distinct high-contrast images from the eyes of rabbits, but conclusively negatively assessed the technique as a forensic tool. The retinal images were then photographed, some of which can be seen below from the Museum of Optography.

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