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Kirlian Photography: Psychics and Science at Odds

A Kirlian photograph of a flower.

I wish I had saved my aura photo. I acquired it at a psychic fair back in about 2014 or so, and at the time thought it was interesting, albeit not very believable. I wanted it done, more or less, for the sake of having it done. I'm glad I did it. To see my image with a collage of bright colors surrounding me, made it seem like I'd just come from a portrait studio in JC Penny's, but somewhere around 1984. It really didn't feel that hokey at the time to partake in the pseudoscience of aura photography. It was during a psychic fair I was involved in hosting, that one of the vendors brought the machines to create these supernatural-looking photos. Being in a crowd of true believers, it can be easy to let personal reservations go and participate in the mystery and woo that comes in heavy-handed at any psychic fair.

My digitally re-created aura selfie. Tongue-in-cheek.

Digital Manipulation:

Often times, those already inclined to enjoy and seek out tangible parts of the Other Side are the primary participants of psychic fairs and conventions. If that comes across as an "everyone else was doing it" mindset, then you're right. That's what it was, so I went ahead and played along, anticipating how my own "aura" would present itself. Others that had their photographs taken before me showed the array of the rainbow, and some guests even had their photo taken twice. That's a solid win-win for the vendor as well, who if I recall correctly, charged an even $20 for the service and printout, complete with an explanation of how to interpret the colors. Unfortunately, in the years that have passed since that night, I've lost or tossed the photo of myself and my aura (I remember it was primarily reds and greens, but not what it all was supposed to mean). I've since learned more information about the science behind how an aura photograph is created, and what it actually takes to make these electrified, colorful photos. [Only a digital version of my own making - not a real aura photo pictured.]

Some Science:

Modern aura photos are a side-effect of pseudoscience which came from Kirlian photography. Without getting overly technical, it started in 1939 when Russian scientist Semyon Kirlian discovered (by accident) that a source of high voltage connected to a photographic plate could create these images of lightning and color around an object on the plate. "The basic process -- a corona discharge phenomenon -- occurs when an electrically grounded object discharges sparks between itself and an electrode generating the electrical field" (1). For a visual representation of the process and a slightly different perspective from a fellow paranormal investigator and writer, check out Sarah Chumacero's blog: Living Life in Full Spectrum. (I love her work and how much she's written about the paranormal.) Much like a plasma-sphere, most of which are seen at the eclectic mall staple Spencer Gifts, Kirlian photographs show an electrical patterning of light and color around the object that is photographed. What strikes me most about the photos is how beautiful and organic they look, however, they are not quite as mystical as they seem, and the process to create them existed well before Kirlian "discovered" it.

Some History:

Scientists had been using the process of supplying electricity to photographic plates for decades by the time Kirlian got in on it. In 1889 "electography", a portmanteau of "electric photography" first came into existence, and within a decade the first "electrographs" of hands and leaves were created. Since that time, the scientific community had been using the technology for various research aspects. Only when Kirlian created his own photographs did he come to believe he had captured what he considered a life force or energy force of living objects, most notably, human subjects. While during the following decades, Kirlian and his "discovery" were mocked or ignored, it took a surprising turn in the 1960's and 70's when the New Age movement kicked off in full force. It was nearly 1960 when the Kirlians (Semyon worked closely with his wife) first presented their work and their photographs. This happened to occur at a point in history primed for crystals, chi, meridian points and energy work. "Probing the bio-energy work" became a focus of study for not just the mystics, but even reached the echelon of credible doctors now and again. Believability is strong with Kirlian photographs when the science is disregarded for a desired outcome - an exquisitely profound example of confirmation bias.

A fingertip, photographed in 1989.

Into the Future:

What made it possible for me to receive my own aura photograph at a psychic fair in in the 21st Century was the work of a mystically-inclined man in the 1980's. A Dr. Guy Aura Coggins (that is his legal name, I'm stunned too) created a camera that could be mass marketed using the existing "aura" imaging technology. His AuraCam3000 and subsequent updated versions, including a computer based (and affordable) version, are what have evolved into Kirlian's modern equivalent. These cameras, attached to laptops, conveniently and quickly supply customers with a colorful portrait on demand, albeit left open to interpretation. The technology is seemingly scientific, but in another twist of bizarre-but-true, Kirlian himself didn't even have a complete understanding of the science behind his photographic phenomenon. There are a whopping 22 different variables that can effect the outcome of an aura photo.

Light, heat, moisture content, etc., they're just a few of the components that affect the technology to create an aura photograph, but the human brain is what defines their colorful outcome. How the colors in the photograph are interpreted is the final step in an aura photograph experience, at least as it happened to me. Now, I have the memory of my picture more in the form of that JC Penny portrait than in anything mysterious or self-indicating. The process of creating the photos can be so widely disputed by science, it's the meaning they convey that remains wholly unbreakable, as it is left up to the believer, and psychic fair vendors, to keep the not-so-mysterious aura photo alive. The Kirlian's are at least pleased beyond the veil, maybe.

Thank you for reading,

  1. Guiley RE. Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience. San Francisco: Harper, 1991, pp 313-315.

I'm Amy L. Bennett, a writer, multimedia artist, recovering archaeologist and YouTuber from Upstate, New York. I've been invested in all things strange and unusual since my dad gave me the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy when I was way too young. Along with my fiancé, Ryan, we've explored countless haunted locations in the US and abroad in search of the Weird.
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