Image : Abstract Aura by Little Visuals – CC0
Here at Pixsy HQ, we are concerned with photo copyright and image protection but as creatives ourselves we also enjoy learning about different aspects of photography. In this post, guest writer Richard Gaspari explores the widely debated mysteries of Kirlian photography.
Photography is one of the most interesting visual mediums out there. With the right equipment and aptitudes, you can produce incredible results. Due to the wide variety of approaches, controversies exist as well.
What Is Kirlian Photography?
Kirlian photography was accidentally discovered in 1939 by Semyon Kirlin and his wife Valentina after a visit to Krasnodar hospital. There, the pair witnessed a patient receiving high-frequency electrical generator treatment, which led them to conduct some experiments of their own.
During the trials, they noticed that objects placed on a photographic plate and subjected to intense electric fields create an image on the surface. Because the technique is a type of contact print, there is no such thing as a Kirlian photography camera. Still, you can use a transparent electrode instead of a plate and capture the images with any modern digital camera.
The Metaphysical and Supernatural
Due to the nature of the discovery, as well as the Kirlians’ own beliefs, the process has come to be associated with the metaphysical and supernatural, as well as an important part of New Age philosophy. The term ‘aura photography’ is often synonymous with Kirlian photography, and there is a wide variety of mystical healing practices that are labeled as being ‘Kirlian.’
Naturally, a lot of myths related to the subject emerged over time. And just like it is the case with many other spiritual and paranormal practices, there are plenty of believers who are ready to vouch for it, in spite of science having disproved their convictions. So, where do facts end and where does fiction begin in the case of Kirlian photography? Let’s find out.
The Fact and the Fiction
As previously mentioned, the strong supernatural convictions of Semyon Kirlian and his wife Valentina strongly influenced the creation of the myths behind the technique. Following their discovery, they claimed that this method captured the aura of living beings, which was represented by a colorful halo-like outline around what had been placed on the plate.
Semyon Kirlian even proposed a theory according to which the images which resulted from this type of photography showed the life force that surrounds every single being on the planet. Together with his spouse, he allegedly even cut off half of a leaf and took the photo, which then showed it as being whole.
These experiments caught the attention of the New Age movement in the United States of the 1970s. The combination between significant scientific discovery and metaphysical concepts that were borderline paranormal was precisely the type of thing that appealed to practitioners of this philosophy. Books were published on the topic, and everyone was ablaze with curiosity.
It might have been the appeal of the psychedelic seventies, but some scientists quickly jumped on board and conducted their own experiments. Nevertheless, as it often happens in such situations, it didn’t take long for the myths to be dispelled. It has since then been observed that inanimate objects produce the same response.
In fact, Polish scientist Piotr K. Wrona applied the principle in forensics just ten years later, more specifically in the field of dactyloscopy. What is more, researchers at Drexel University have recreated the famous cut leaf experiment that the Kirlians stood by, and decided it was erroneously conducted, which led to false results.
The team photographed a whole leaf on a glass plate, then changed it before producing an image of the cut one. The leaf appeared as it was, namely halved, which demonstrated that the only reason why Semyon and Valentina made their discovery was due to a buildup of residual energy that caused inaccuracies in their tests.
Therefore, the metaphysical explanation is off the table. So, what causes the effect produced by Kirlian photography? The general consensus among scientists is that the images are created by a high voltage corona effect. The same process can be observed at the level of other sources of high voltage, such as Tesla coils, or the Van de Graaff generator.
Those familiar with the color photographic film already know that its chemical composition is tweaked to react to light. When the response is caused by a corona effect, it alters how the dyes and other compounds perform, thus resulting in these unique images. Unfortunately for the believers still out there, there is nothing supernatural about it.
Kirlian photography might be fun to produce and look at, but it is by no means a supernatural event. It does not capture auras, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the metaphysical. It is merely a natural reaction of photographic film to the corona effect of high voltage electrical energy, which makes it a simple light trick, and nothing more.