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Optograms (mouth camera) 1997 - 2013 | 1997

Optograms (mouth camera) 1997 - 2013

The title Optogram* is a generic name given to a series of mouth photograph works by the artist which use the original piece of photographic paper that was put into her mouth to capture an image. These human camera images are often exhibited alongside a documentary photograph (shot with a mechanical camera). These accompanying documentary images are taken at the same time at which the mouth photograph was being taken. The mouth photographs are coloured red because they are fogged by light filtering through the blood in the cheeks; they average about 6cm in width.

The relationship between to the two images sets up narrative threads and different time frames between the two moments captured - one internalised and the other externalised.

They are singular works.

* (Optograms were images that were believed to be etched into the retina at the point of death (particularly a dramatic death) forming a kind of photograph in the eye which could be recovered through dissection. There was a scientific foundation to this belief, which was prevalent in the Victorian period).

Excerpt from SMART papers: Swallowing Black Maria by Richard Grayson

"The murderer’s image in the eye of the murdered. They love reading about it."
James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922

Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 short story `At the End of the Passage´ is set in India. Three civil servants meet every Sunday to play a game of whist with a Doctor Spurstow. One of them, Hummil, complains of sleepless nights and bad dreams and the next week he is found dead in his bed with a look of horror frozen upon his face. Doctor Spurstow examines the dead man and noticing gray blurs in the pupils of his eyes, decides to photograph them for later study as the cause of his death remains uncertain. Hummil is buried. After the burial they reconvene..."After breakfast, they smoked a pipe in silence to the memory of the dead. Then Spurstow said absently:

“Tisn’t in medical science.”

“What?”

“Things in a dead man’s eye.”

“For goodness’ sake leave that horror alone!” said Lowndes. “I’ve seen a native die of pure fright when a tiger chivied him. I know what killed Hummil.”

“The deuce you do! I’m going to try to see.” And the doctor retreated into the bath-room with a Kodak camera. After a few minutes there was the sound of something being hammered to pieces, and he emerged, very white indeed.

“Have you got a picture?” said Mottram. “What does the thing look like?”

“It was impossible, of course. You needn’t look, Mottram. I’ve torn up the films. There was nothing there. It was impossible.”

“That,” said Lowndes very distinctly, watching the shaking hand striving to relight the pipe, “is a damned lie.”

Mottram laughed uneasily. “Spurstow’s right,” he said. “We’re all in such a state now that we’d believe anything. For pity’s sake let’s try to be rational.”

In 1876 Franz Boll, of the University of Rome, discovered a red pigment in a frog's retina which bleached when exposed to light and was resynthesized in the dark. He called this substance visual red – later renamed visual purple or rhodopsin.

The professor of physiology at Heidelberg, Willy Kühne, took up the study of rhodopsin. He wrote: “Bound together with the pigment epithelium, the retina behaves not merely like a photographic plate, but like an entire photographic workshop, in which the workman continually renews the plate by laying on new light-sensitive material, while simultaneously erasing the old image.”

He hypothesized that with a pigment that bleaches in the light, it might be possible to take a picture with the living eye. He fastened down an albino rabbit so that its head faced a barred window and it could see only a grey and clouded sky. The animal’s head was covered for several minutes with a black cloth to adapt its eyes to the dark, to let rhodopsin accumulate in its rods (the most abundant and light sensitive retinal receptor cells). Then the cloth was removed so that the animal was exposed to the light for three minutes. The rabbit was immediately decapitated, the eye removed and cut open along the equator, and the rear half of the eyeball containing the retina laid in a solution of alum for fixation. Kühne saw, printed upon the retina in bleached and unaltered rhodopsin, a picture of the window with the clear pattern of its bars.

The research gained coverage in the media and entered the popular imagination as an idea – one often thought to be ancient or folkloric – that the eyes of someone dead would hold the image of the last thing that they had seen, that they had fixed in their eye perhaps an image of the agent of death.

This belief became widespread enough for some police departments to take close-up photographs of the eyes of murder victims in the hope of identifying their assailants. The most celebrated of such cases was Scotland Yard’s investigation of the infamous Jack-the-Ripper murders in Whitehall, London in 1888. "In an attempt to be scientific, the police pried open Annie Chapman’s dead eyes and photographed them, in the hope that the retinas had retained an image of the last thing she saw. But no images were found.” (Stewart-Gordon, ´Jack the Ripper´, Argosy Magazine, 1973) 
Lindsay Seers makes reference to this in a note that is a component part of a set of images in her exhibition. It reads: "In Senigallia for eight days now. Can we be possessed by an image/a person/an idea from the past? Annie Chapman. The police forced open her dead eyes looking for an image in her retina – an optogram. Is that the same desire – to find an image written on the body – the desire that makes this compulsion in me – to want to take photographs in my mouth – inside of me?"  Next to this note is a drawing of a body – we presume the artists – slumped like a corpse. A camera on a tripod looks down on her. The only landscape and context visible is delineated between two lines that radiate from her mouth.  In this cone we can see an upturned boat, a beach.  Below there is a photograph. It must have been taken by the camera in the drawing. In the photograph her head is hidden by a black bag. A final image is a red disc. We can see that the two pale forms retreating into the distance in it are two vastly foreshortened legs, above them a torso. We can see the upturned boat again. It is an image photographed from the mouth of the person slumped on the floor.

As viewers of Lindsay Seers´ body of work we are presented with a series of enigmas and mysteries centred on the body and the image. Her complex practice focuses on the act of perception, and the act(s) and technologies of photography. These are extrapolated into a meditation on memory and expression with the life and the body of Lindsay Seers central to this enterprise. In seeking to find out what has happened, not only do we become detectives ourselves, but we discover that the investigator and researcher are central figures in the construction of Seers' own identity and history in the work. In a series of films and videos she turns the autobiographical into the biographical, and seeking ways to understand the events that have taken place in her life, turns to the eyes and words of others. The artist becomes the person who is spoken of, who is represented. One of the narrators is her mother who tells of Lindsay's childhood on the island of Mauritius, the return to England and her reaction to Seers´ work and activities (which she identifies as “disappointing” and that it has been “for all its qualities, has been somewhat a negative process"). At other times theatre producers and researchers speak of her life. Rufus Eisenbud in 'The World of Jule Eisenbud (Remission)' tells how his father, a psychiatrist and psychical researcher, had investigated the 'thoughtography' of Ted Serios in the late sixties. Serios, an elevator operator and alcoholic from Chicago, seemingly imprinted images from his mind onto photographic emulsion: Eisenbud supervised thousands of trials testing this. Rufus relates how after Serios stopped doing this and disappeared, his father became fascinated by Lindsay Seers and her activities as a camera until, “like Ted, she disappeared…and reappeared as a ventriloquist."