During their experiments, Kirlian placed a hand on an electrified photographic plate. The result was an electrographic image that outlined his palm in what looked like vibrant, pulsating energy — the electrical coronal discharge in the air around his hand. The Kirlians had figured out how to make aura-like images without cameras or photographic film. They just needed a discharge plate, an electric field, and a high-voltage source. (Capturing Kirlian images requires the use of electrical currents, so proceed with caution.)
Kirlian photography and supernatural beliefs.
After Semyon and Valentina Kirlian developed their technique, they promoted it as a diagnostic tool and claimed that the images produced by their electrographs showed the aura, life force, or emotional state of the subject.
“There’s a famous photograph they took of a leaf where the leaf is ripped in half, rephotographed, and you can still see the whole leaf,” says Watts. “That’s where a lot of the mystical aspects came from, but actually it’s just moisture content.” As technology has progressed, we now know that the “life force” is the coronal discharge — a byproduct of any natural object containing gas or moisture as it reacts with electricity.
The New Age movement and Kirlian photos.
The Kirlians became more well known in the US in 1970 thanks to a book by Lynn Schroeder and Sheila Ostrander, Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, which became popular with New Age enthusiasts.
The Kirlians’ claim that photography could be a window into spiritual matters had ample precedent. “Famous people like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had these meetings to document ghosts and paranormal activity,” says Watts. “Around the 1880s, more people had access to cameras and anyone could take photos. There was a huge boom in paranormal photography.” When the Kirlians did their experiment in 1939 and when Schroeder and Ostrander popularized their work for a Western audience, the existing culture around the occult catapulted this style of photography into popularity.
Science helps explain the mystery.
“Now it all can be explained pretty easily,” says Watts of the ghosts and other phenomena people once thought were captured in early photography. Hazy areas of photos or floating orbs are often created by changes in light, the condition of a lens, or other atmospheric conditions that have nothing to do with hauntings.
Mainstream medicine does not recognize Kirlian photography as a diagnostic tool, and images of coronal discharges vary depending on humidity, the type of electrical grounding, and connectivity. However, even if they don’t reveal the supposed bioenergy of living things, the images and the corona effect are still beautiful.