Flashback Friday: Kirlian Photography

From the July, 1980 issue of High Times comes Heathcote Williams’ article about taking snapshots of the spirit world, followed by a sidebar on Kirlian hardware by Gary Selden.


Kirlian photography. Electrobioluminescence. Photopsychography. Electrophotography. All these expressions are part of the new lexicon researchers are using to describe the process of recording the aura.

The aura has been represented in prehistoric rock paintings and is clearly defined in the works of Paracelsus, Swedenborg, William Blake, Rudolf Steiner, Annie Besant and many more. Every religious painting that shows a halo is another example of the prescientific consciousness of these emanations.

These instinctual observations were in a sense a security leak from the future. Science has now proved, a little superfluously perhaps for the ardent occultist, but proved for those who required it, that both objects and organisms emit light when seduced by the right force field, even in a darkened room. The geography of the aura can now be tentatively mapped on photographic film.

The speediest explanation of the process is that electrons are liberated from the subject material by field emission, and accelerated across an air gap to give off bursts of light in collision with air molecules. The first high-voltage photograph was a contact print taken by a man named Carstone in 1842. In 1893 Nikola Tesla, using his own powerful Tesla coil, took some, leading to a rash of experiments at the end of the 19th century in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia and Russia. But aura-vision was virtually ignored in the 20th century until the Kirlians, a Russian husband-and-wife team, became obsessed with it in the 1950s.

The aura, or what Paracelsus called the “star body,” is revealed on photographic film when an object or part of an organism is placed in contact with it and surrounded by a field of high-frequency electrical current. Fibrillating rushes of energy can be seen leaking out through micro-channels in matter and flesh: the same electronic hieroglyphs that a psychic sees when placing an object or a person in his or her own bodily force field.

Some of them are prophetic. The Kirlians found that confusion in energy patterns showed up in an electrophotograph long before they were experienced in the body of the subject (an early indication of its potential use in medical diagnosis, though it hasn’t yet been taken up).

Semyon Davidovich Kirlian, studying his early pictures (acquired at the price of several jolts), wondered: “Where is the caravan of lights coming from? Where is it going?”

A later experiment, known as the “phantom leaf effect” made by H.G. Andrade in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1972, added to the mystery. Andrade took an electrophotograph of a leaf showing a glowing aura. He then chopped off the end of the leaf. Using a Tesla coil to create the appropriate force field, he rephotographed it shortly afterward. The aura of the missing section is clearly visible, luminously echoing the original shape of the unsevered leaf.

For a long time there was great difficulty in repeating this experiment, which led to much skepticism, but recently the experiment has been successfully repeated hundreds of times by Thelma Moss, John Hubacher and others in the United States. The arboreal phoenix lives again, scientifically reinforcing the earlier observations of spiritualists that everything has an “energy body” or an “etheric double” that remains unaffected by slash-happy scientists.

The “missing” energy body of the leaf section is obviously not the electrical state of the organism, since that part of the field has been lopped off, but something much higher up the spectrum: some other more finely tuned essences that can withstand mortal vandalism and that led two Soviet scientists (catching up with what spiritualists had known all along) to christen it the biological plasma body, a counterpart body of energy.

The body is static, but the bioplasma is a swirling, mobil yantra. It reacts to cosmic disturbances. A daisy will flash on solar flares and reflect them in a Kirlian snapshot. The bioplasmic body, the energy envelope (which is always open), is affected by the atmosphere and other cosmic occurrences. Disturbances of the sun change the whole plasmic balance of the universe resulting in measurable physical changes in organisms. The 11 1/2-year solar-flare cycle radically affects the human bioplasm and often incinerates it: The frequency of wars every 11 1/2 years (half the ambiguous 23 of Illuminatus) is more than coincidence.

The dwarf stars that exude from the fingertips in a Kirlian picture echo Newton’s law that everything in the universe is interconnected. The red gases on Jupiter flare out of the heart chakra, Venusian force fields can be found squatting in a Kirlian capacitor plate and be activated and nabbed on film when a sympathetic object is placed there. The hairs on your head are antennae timed to pick up Martian gossip. These flare patterns indicate the tuning of the human gyroscope to the galactic wave field. Anima est sol et luna.

The bioplasmic body is cosmically linked—a luminescent litmus paper that records changes in the environment, seasons, tides, noise levels and all the resonances that flesh is heir to. There are changes in the bioplasmic body (as well as in brain waves, enzyme levels and blood volume) when telepathic messages are coming through, detectable via polygraphs, plethysmographs and a Kirlian camera. Your ears may go red when someone is talking about you behind your back, but your aura will also show a large dent; if they’re being kind about you, your aura will reveal a rich red, burgeoning corona.

Interconnectedness is inescapable, though variable. Two close friends whose fingertips are photographed together on the same capacitor plate will generate a brighter cascade than will two strangers. The auras of two lovers’ fingertips photographed side by side will merge in a purple haze. Two people projecting antagonism toward each other will exude negative, sinuous, viscous patterns, like Portuguese men-of-war, that avoid each other as much as possible. A small drop of blood from a pregnant woman has, on one occasion, revealed the image of a spectral fetus.

The aura is the skin brain at work. It is quite unrelated to galvanic skin response, that is, it’s not sweat. Three U.S. scientists who at one point interrupted all the finances for Kirlian research in their country by publishing an article in Science (October 1976) in which they alleged that the Kirlian effect was caused merely by moisture were forced to recant. A seed has next to no moisture at all, and yet most seeds give off a vibrant coronal discharge.

The auric force envelope around the body registers electromagnetic waves from everywhere in the spectrum. Patterns of radioactivity can be felt with the fingertips, and a photograph of their aura will reflect it. Perhaps it is a skill left over from earlier stages of development. In worms receptors for light, sound and smell are dispersed all over the body surface. Christian worms make the following supplication on the first Sunday in Advent: “Let us put on the armour of light” (Rom. 13:12).

Events that radiate the fact that they’re going to happen before they do register themselves in the auric field. If this seems nonsense, consider particles that can go backward in time, now quite conventional. Consider the neutrino that can penetrate a lead wall 50 light-years thick. Dr. A. Podshibyakin discovered the electric potential of the skin rises during close-to-the-ground magnetic storms. Some people get forebodings of these invisible whirlwinds 24 hours before the storm happens. Others get them three or four days before the storm shows up on physical instruments. It may be that the aura is composed of a swirling mass of tingling telepathons: psychic bees performing exploratory dances that encompass the globe in the twinkling of an eye in order to inform their sluggish queen, the body, which was fool enough perhaps to fall from spirit into matter, of dangers or delights ahead. It may be that the streets are riddled with thousands of auric sandwich men displaying the whole history of the future for those who have eyes to see.

There are, of course, some creatures that are all aura, and who will only pose for you if you’ve got a Kirlian glint in your eye. Angels, ghosts, dybbuks, goblins, sprites, daevas, undines, sylphs and fays are common to all cultures, and maybe to other planets. (Michael Marten, of the Martian Liberation Front [“Fight for the right to land”] believes that Martians are composed entirely of electromagnetic fields and the metallic rubbish that the Americans are dumping there seriously interferes with their orgasms.)

Conan Doyle believed that these auric creatures were a “sister stream in evolution,” and took up their cause when two girls from the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire claimed to have captured pictures of them on their uncle’s Brownie camera. The case caused a global sensation after World War I, and allegations of fraud abounded. But the plates of subsequent pictures that the girls took were scrupulously marked, and in the 1940s the positives were blown up to the size of a house in order to try to detect double exposures, fake shading and the existence of models, but to no avail.

The pictures show some very dramatic images of earth spirits who’d crept through a crack in the void to model for the two Cottingley girls. My initial reaction to them was suspicion, since the beings are all in contemporary ’20s costume, but then a nexus of theosophist brain cells whispered: “Well, that’s how they materialized at that time in order to be recognized.” I retorted: “But what if it was to happen now? Punk-rock fairies would be carrying it a bit far, wouldn’t it?” The theosophist was not to be outdone and commented that I had been conditioned by a prissy Victorian attitude to the Secret Commonwealth. “Fairies,” the voice said, “are simply angels that fell from heaven but didn’t fall as far as hell. Any entity, any entity can contribute to these strange fields.”

Recently, according to John Chesterman, coauthor of World Within Worlds, the Cottingley photographs were subjected to a form of analysis known as computer enhancement, first perpetrated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and wires were apparently found through this method, stretching up from the creatures to the top of the photographs. John Nicholson, author, bookseller, and propagator of the magazine The Fanatic, commented: “Ah, but fairies are for children to see. That’s their nature. A machine would quite naturally only see wires. That’s its nature.”

Be that as it may, I’ve found that the Kirlian camera I have been using over the last year is a mechanistic Maria Callas, wired to the no-osphere, the far-gone-osphere and the far-gone-outosphere, and that there’s precious little accounting which firmamental pressure group it’s wired to when you plug it in. A.S. Presman has noted that electromagnetic fields facilitate informational exchange between living organisms. I have found that my field and the field that the Kirlian camera is creating have a relationship: If you’re in a bad mood, or trying to show off the process to someone, or doing a picture under any kind of negative pressure, it won’t work. If you’re in a good mood it will. (“Just think if guns, cars, the telephone and nuclear weapons were that responsive,” bleeps Mr. Natural.)

A dramatic example of the machine’s feelings occurred when I photographed the key to the room where I keep it and compared it with a photograph of the key to my shed, where I keep a broken washing machine and assorted rubbish. The first had a sort of irradiated halo, the second a couple of confused blurs spilling out of it in a desultory fashion.

Thought, feeling, illness and death all show up on the auric map. No Kirlian picture has for certain yet been taken of a human being dying, but doubtless it will. Photographs of a leaf dying show long striations of energy streaming off into never-never land. They vary in length with the sensitivity of the equipment; in other words, given superlatively sensitive equipment, they may never end. The energy that is released by the artificial transformation known as death is still extant, and the body-lightning rodeo can perhaps be reconstituted in its original shape, should anyone be so attached to it, given the right force field on the other side of the fence.

A psychic needs no machine to detect other life forms in this atmosphere. It was a basic Celtic belief that the air was crammed with spiritual entities and that heaven was celestially swirling right here and behind you and in you and around you and up you. You snorted in boggarts and elves and daevas and demons (underexposed Kirlians) at every breath. Christianity, on the other hand, showed heaven, or the spiritual and auric ether, miles and miles away, in order to make the earth seem second-best, and in order that the powers that shouldn’t be could do with it what they willed.

The auric effusions made manifest on the Kirlian camera show the lust of every scrap of matter for spirituality, for another state of play, and indeed, at the subatomic level, matter is spirit. Things placed in front of a Kirlian camera display their fundamental image of themselves, dancing an aery fandango on an incorporeal plane. It shows that any contact with “objects”—picking up a pebble on the beach, for example, moving its position, chucking it into the sea, is a serious business, let alone the way half this planet’s been fucked up and its aura turned into an Aertex shirt by insensitive meddlers. Things can be fucked up, but when did you last see a thing fuck itself up of its own volition? Not an attack on you, gentle reader, but where are you standing or sitting now, what on, and why? Why aren’t you an inch to the left or an inch to the right? Await the Auric Dictionary.

The word thing is one of the most mysterious and indefinable words in the language, and seems to have more different uses than any other noun. “The supposition,” stated Bishop Berkeley, “that things are distinct from ideas takes away all real truth.” One of the earliest semantic snares that this strange portmanteau, holdall concept—a thing—got tangled up in was to become a synonym for the word assembly or meeting: “Let’s go to that thing on Tuesday night.” The earliest religions worshiped imbued matter, a thing, a clashing of energy vectors; later the word came to mean them, the people drawn to the thing, the assembly, an anthropomorphic, self-centered and personalized corruption of the original meaning. But despite human chauvinism many things have far stronger auras than human beings.

LSD has recently been the subject of atomic analysis, and reveals extremely high energy levels. There are far more electrons in its outer orbits than in any other drug, and far more again, it seems, than in that more primitive drug human being, which deals itself to itself constantly with little thought of the consequences.

An Orange Sunshine tab looks fairly merry being an Orange Sunshine tab (and glowed Cheese in five-D when I threw the Kirlian switch on it). I photographed a tab of acid from Operation Julie (the bust of an English ring alleged to be the world’s biggest producer of LSD) shortly after the spiteful scenario involving prison sentences totaling 170 years had taken place. The Kirlian picture of the tab struck me as having the distinct feeling of a persecuted will o’ the wisp, but one determined to keep itself intact despite ignorant and philistine opposition.

These Kirlian Rorschachs show that an “inanimate” thing has emanations capable of a plethora of emotional, psychological, ecological, spiritual and perhaps even political interpretations, either correct or incorrect, but certainly challenging heuristic skills. So you’ve caught me on film, what have you caught? “God’s sons are things” (Samuel Madden, Boulter’s Monument, 1712).

Dave Lawton, who built the Kirlian camera I now use, is building a Tesla coil with which he proposes to fire 500,000 volts of plasmoid spark-mush through his body. The whole human aura is visible in such a field. If he turns himself into a potato chip during the process, it might be possible to put a tracer on his aura and see where it goes, but hopefully he will not.

The modern science of electrophotography has borne out instinctive human experience in several ways. The phrase “all lit up,” a common phrase for intoxication, is an interesting example: Electrophotographs of the fingertip of an intoxicated subject show great heavy splurges of light clumsily leaking out, an indication that large quantities of energy are being burned up very quickly and exaggeratedly illuminated.

The ancient Chinese meridians in acupuncture, the irrigating junctions of the energy circuits, show up dramatically in Kirlian pictures of the relevant parts of the body. Light squirts out, in stark powerful beams, from the very places indicated as meridians of energy in the traditional acupuncture charts.

The laying on of hands is clearly a benevolent auric transmission. The V sign, or the first and last fingers of one hand splayed toward you as practiced on the Continent, the mano in fica, the mano impudica, the mano cornuta, and the demonic Indian gesture mudras, are an attempt to earth you and paralyze you with negative currents.

At the dawn of experience people worshiped things rather than each other (or hypostasized versions of each other). They worshiped them with a curious reverence, rather than raping them with a destructive fetishism. People currently pick on their elders and betters, namely things, like a fractious child molesting and tormenting a peaceful adult in order to get a reaction. Now perhaps things can be seen in a new light.

The science, however, is still in its infancy, and sadly, shortly after its birth, sciolist soul-spivs and hucksters moved in on it with the assiduity of an end-of-the-pier palmist. They sell overpriced Kirlian cameras and woo the unwary with extremely dubious character studies based on an electrophotograph. At the Kirlian stand at the recent Festival of Mind and Body in London thousands of people queued to have their fingertips photographed and then were lured into shelling out a considerable sum for what sounded to an eavesdropper like a shallow, hazardous and ridiculously generalized analysis.

The left-hand path will surely lead to Kirlian beach photographers and bioplasmic photobooths in Woolworth and the right-hand path (or vice versa) to auric bugging: If thoughts show up on the auric field then the thought police won’t be too long in trying to stitch it all up, so that everyone will be too scared to have any aura at all, and we’ll be back to square one. The low-minded subreality putsch. “What my net won’t catch simply ain’t fish. The spark of life you say? I can’t see it. Turn the light on.” The middle path shows the way across the Rainbow Bridge.

Our energy is continuous and immoral. Self-absorption short-circuits your field and makes an ugly snap. Auric altruism refreshes the planisphere and returns your electrons to you at compound interest. See yourself coming in bigger than you were when you went out. Clean your spark plugs, Nosferatu Nerdniks. Ye that are heavy laden, rip off your clothes, rise up and bathe the world in light. The Recording Angel’s got a Polaroid. Where are the Kirlian clapper boards? Akashic flashers, unsheathe your auric fronds and let it all hang out so far you gotta pump air into it. Click. Click. Take infinity!

Go with the glow and renew the glue that sticks everything together. Cosmic superglue. Let your light so shine before men… Sickness is pulling the plugs out on it all. If you keep your aura to yourself you won’t have one. If you rip off something or someone else’s the farce will desert you. Crown King Thing. The aura bomb has been detonated. Our energy is continuous and immortal. Fiat lux in the unfucked flux.

Kirlian Hardware

The simplest Kirlian device employs a Tesla coil, a transformer that produces alternating current of high voltage and frequency but in a safe low-amperage flow. The current is delivered to flat, horizontal positive and negative copper electrodes, parallel and close together. On the lower electrode lies a piece of film, emulsion side up.

The electromagnetic field generated by the current elicits field emission; that is, it sucks electrons from the subject. They knock other electrons loose from atoms in the air, producing negatively charged free electrons and positively charged ions. The electrons cluster at the positive electrode and the positive ions move toward the negative pole, but when these two clouds of oppositely charged particles grow large enough, they attract each other more than the electrodes do and come crashing back together. When the atoms reunite with their lost electrons, they give off photons—little sparks of light. This light is the flamelike corona that can be seen on the film or by the naked eye in a dark room. The energy field (aura) of living tissue shows up in the changes it makes in the corona.

Single millisecond bursts of current show tiny points of light, individual ion-electron clouds; continuous pulses cause these points to flow together into a full halo. Black-and-white film may show more fibrous detail in the flares; color film seems to reflect more dramatically a subject’s changes in mood.