Natural photographs: Optograms and the fiction of captured vision

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An optogram is an image fixed on the retina by a biological, photochemical process. In the late nineteenth century, it was widely believed that optograms could be excised from dead bodies to procure their final visions. Optograms were most frequently compared to photographs, so that the retina of the eye was likened to the sensitive plate in a camera. Just as photography became capable of superseding human vision in the 1870s, optograms discursively came to light as latent photographs, making photography the original for preconscious sight. These historical inversions of primacy challenge our conceptions of the relation between nature and culture in photography, with the cultural invention preceding the natural discovery of optography. This article examines how an incidental, speculative, and ultimately forgotten discovery in the physical sciences was deployed rhetorically to reinforce personal or disciplinary beliefs about what photography was and what it could do, in realms ranging from physiological laboratories to science fiction, from police departments to courtrooms. Analysis of optographic discourse indicates that the true value of photography in the late nineteenth century was not primarily in the photograph’s relation to its indexical referent, but in the possibility that it might grant access to seeing as another living being.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-77
Number of pages17
JournalHistory of Photography
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


  • Death
  • Forensics
  • Hermann Vogel (1834–98)
  • Objectivity
  • Optogram
  • Optography
  • Physiology
  • Retina
  • Sigmund Exner (1846–1926)
  • Vision
  • Willy Kühne (1837–1900)


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