What is Kirlian Photography? The Science and the Myth Revealed

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is a professional photographer and creator of Presets Galore.
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Kirlian photography, although the study of which can be traced back to the late 1700s, was officially invented in 1939 by Semyon Davidovitch Kirlian.  The Kirlian photographic process reveals visible “auras” around the objects photographed.  These photographs have been the subject of much myth and controversy over the years.  Interestingly, much of which was initially put forth to explain the Kirlian photography phenomena was put forth by the inventor himself, along with his wife.

The process of taking a Kirlian photo is a fairly simple one and does not even require the use of a camera.  First, a sheet of photographic film is placed on top of a metal plate.  Then, the object that is to be photographed is placed on top of the film.  To create the initial exposure, high voltage current is applied to the metal plate.  The electrical coronal discharge between the object and the metal plate is captured on the film.  The Kirlian photograph, which shows a light, glowing silhouette around the photographed object, becomes visible as a result of developing the film.

Although the Kirlians invented this photographic process in 1939, they didn’t publicly release information about their experiments until 1958, and Kirlian photography wasn’t a well-known phenomenon to the general public until 1970.


quarter3 by nebarnix, on Flickr

The Myth of Kirlian Photography

The first mythical explanations put forth about Kirlian photography were suggested by the Kirlians themselves.  They believed that these photographs were depicting the actual life-force or “aura” that many people believe surrounds all living things.  New Age spiritualists attribute huge importance to the aura and believe that specially trained aura-readers can provide important insights into a person’s spiritual, emotional and physical state.  The Kirlians were convinced that these photos could accurately predict emotional and physical states and could be used to diagnose illnesses.

The assertion that Kirlian photographs could depict emotional and physical states was quickly adopted by energy practitioners.  While the use of Kirlian photography has largely fallen by the wayside as a diagnostic tool these days, there are still alternative practitioners who believe in it as an accurate way to help those who seek their services for healing all kinds of conditions both emotional and physical.

Kirlian photography has been a staple of paranormal research for some time as well.  In the 1960s and 1970s paranormal researchers connected it to many types of unexplained phenomena, one of which was telepathy.  Researchers proposed that telepathy was the result of people’s auras communicating together.

The Science of Kirlian Photography

It can be hard to separate the fact versus the fiction when it comes to Kirlian photography, since these photos are very real and do clearly show some phenomenon at work.  However, the fact that these glowing auras are seen around non-living objects as well as living objects in Kirlian photos is often simply ignored by those who want to believe in the supernatural explanation.

fingerprints by nebarnix, on Flickr

So if the glowing auras seen in Kirlian photography aren’t really caused by something spiritual, paranormal or our “life-energy” then what are they caused by? 

The answer is water. 

The high-voltage frequency applied to the metal plate rips the electrons off of atoms.  The air around the photographed object becomes ionized.  If that air contains any water, the resulting image will show the glowing silhouette around the object, which scientists actually call a “corona plasma discharge”.

When a person is sweating more due to being overheated, or excited in some way, Kirlian photographs taken of their hands at that time will show a larger more intense glow due to the increased moisture.  Conversely, cold dry hands will produce an image which shows a weaker glow.  Despite the ready availability of this accurate scientific explanation, New Age proponents of Kirlian photography will still argue that the person whose hands showed a larger, brighter glow is a natural healer when they are really just sweaty.

fingertip by nebarnix, on Flickr

Factors other than humidity which can influence the final image include the pressure and angle of your hand touching the metal plate as well as the amount of voltage.  Kirlian photographs taken of the exact same person can be very different taken only minutes apart due to these variables.

A very well-known Kirlian photography experiment documents a leaf as it slowly dies.  The initial photograph was taken when the leaf was freshly cut and shows a prominent glow.  As the leaf gets older more photos are taken, which show that the glow is starting to weaken.  This was once explained away with the life-force theory.  However, we now know that the weakening of the glow is simply a result of the leaf losing water and drying up over time.

Ivy Leaf by nebarnix, on Flickr

In another experiment involving a leaf, an initial photo is taken which shows the usual strong glow or aura.  Then, part of the leaf is torn away.  Surprisingly, a ghostly glowing trace of the missing part of the leaf showed up on the film.  For years this result was considered more proof of some sort of “life-force”.  In reality though, it was simply a result of some moisture residue left on the glass.  If the residue is completely removed prior to photographing the leaf again, the phantom glow does not appear.

One final scientific observation to point out is that the Kirlian effect simply doesn’t happen in a vacuum since there is no water vapor, which prevents ionization.

In Conclusion

While the mystical and paranormal explanations for the glow in Kirlian photographs have been debunked, the truth may be just as interesting as fiction to the more scientifically minded.  Its potential for studying certain aspects of life are being explored scientifically.

Also, there are a few artists using Kirlian photography to create beautiful images of what has been called “living art”.  Like other forms of artistic expression such as traditional photography, this should and will be explored to its fullest.

life force in a quarter by nebarnix, on Flickr

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