The Unexplained Revisited: Kirlian Photography

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The new topic introduced in issue 3 of The Unexplained was Kirlian photography. And, really, this was the ideal subject for the magazine. If you want an area of alleged paranormal phenomena that has inherent visual appeal, then you can’t do much better than those alluring photographs of mundane objects surrounded by coloured auras. It’s pitch-perfect for a magazine spread.

The first half of Brian Snellgrove’s article on Kirlian photography, entitled “Images of the Unseen”, opens with a short history of the topic:

In 1939 a Russian engineer, Semyon Kirlian, was repairing an electro-therapy machine in a research laboratory in the Ukrainian town of Krasnodar. Accidentally he allowed his hand to move too close to a ‘live’ electrode. The shock he received was accompanied by a brilliant flash of light given off by a large spark of electricity. His curiosity aroused, Kirlian wondered what would happen if he placed a sheet of light sensitive material in the path of the spark. Placing his own hand behind a piece of light-sensitised paper, Kirlian found on developing the film strange streamer-like emanations surrounding the image of his fingertips. On closer inspection, Kirlian found that each emanation was seen to have a different radiation pattern.

Fascinated by his ‘discovery’, Kirlian set up a laboratory in his tiny two-roomed flat and spent all his spare time investigating this phenomenon. Kirlian’s research into high-voltage photography over the next 40 years led to intense scientific speculation and debate, and the claim, but some, that the strange emanations captured on film by Kirlian were proof of the existence of the so-called ‘astral body’.

The article notes that similar experiments carried out in the 1890s by Nikola Tesla (whose life and work is granted a box on the second page of the article) and in the early 1930s by George de la Warr, but credits Kirlian with the most remarkable findings. Kirlian recorded poor results when trying to photograph a man who turned out to have influenza, and a leaf from a tree that was diseased. Meanwhile, we are told that Kirlian photographed the complete outline of a leaf, even though a section of the leaf itself had been removed: “This phenomenon, known as the ‘phantom leaf’, seemed to confirm the claims of clairvoyants that they could see clearly the ‘phantom limb’ on people with an amputated limb, but who continued to feel pain from the severed limb.” The article is illustrated with a similar experiment involving a rose petal.

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“For centuries mystics and clairvoyants had claimed that they were able to see a brilliant halo of light surrounding the physical body of all living organisms”, notes Snellgrove. “Though the Kirlians themselves did not describe the results of their investigations as evidence for the existence of an ‘astral body’, many were only too eager to do so.”

Dr. Walter Kilner’s claimed ability to see a person’s aura, and Dr. Victor Inyushin’s theory that plants, animals and human beings “not only have a physical bod made of atoms and molecules, but also a counterpart body of energy” which is reflected in the Kirlian photographs. Meanwhile, a box discusses the “remarkably intense aura” seen in Kirlian photographs of alleged psychic Matthew Manning’s fingertips. Snellgrove also mentions the sceptical viewpoint that the photographs arise from “such factors as sweat secretion and the primitive nature of the equipment used.”

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The second half of the article, “Reading Between the Lines”, was published in issue 5 of The Unexplained. It opens with some unsourced claims about the effectiveness of Kirlian photography as a form of personality assessment:

The left hemisphere of the brain corresponds to the right hand, and radiations from it detected by Kirlian photography provide clues to the logical ability of the subject. The intuitive potential of the subject can also be discovered by a reading of the corona effect of the left hand, which correlates with the right hemisphere of the brain. Both hands in a state of balance show a well-balanced personality.

The article moves on to the work of New York researchers Dr Thelma Moss and Dr Margaret Armstrong, whose studies on rats “indicate that marked changes occur in the corona discharge of the tails of cancerous rats as compared to those of non-cancerous rats.” The article goes on to claim that “Similar corona patterns have been found in cancerous plants and in the fingertips of cancerous humans” but again doesn’t cite sources.

In case anyone thinks that the article is getting a bit credulous. Snellgrove provides an overview of conflicting theories about Kirlian photography, starting with the most sceptical:

There are present four broad views taken of Kirlian photography. According to the cynical view, the so-called Kirlian effect is merely the result of normal discharge between the subject, film and the machine. Any accurate diagnosis produced is purely coincidental and is due solely to the intuition of the researcher. Accepting that Kirlian photography can monitor physical symptoms such as the activity of the sweat glands and temperature, more sympathetic critics say that it still needs to be shown that these changes reflect changes in the physical or psychological state of the subject before proper diagnosis can be made.

Parapsychologists, however, insist that although purely physical causes, such as sweat, may play a part in the production of the corona effect, these causes by themselves do not provide a full explanation. According to parapsychologists, Kirlian photography can only be fully understood if the existence of an ‘energy body’, ‘aura’, ‘bioplasmic body’ or some other ‘paranormal’ phenomenon is accepted. The most radical interpretation is that of the ‘enthusiast’ who claims that Kirlian photography has nothing to do with such mundane physical causes such as sweat. It shows, quite clearly, the energies of the soul.

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Snellgrove then lists six potential issues that Kirlian photographers should bear in mind when working. These turn out to be a mixture of theoretical statements about such matters as “energy bodies” alongside solid advice on using photography equipment:

  • The area of the body chosen to photograph: smaller areas, such as fingertips, show “only the most acute abnormalities” when photographed and therefore are of limited usefulness.
  • Misleading conclusions based on colour: the colour of a Kirlian photograph is due solely to the type of film used.
  • Operator effect: Snellgrove argues that just as “an aggressive attitude on the part of observers can inhibit the performance of ESP subjects” the operator of a Kirlian session might have a psychic effect on the result, and so should stand at least four feet from the subject while maintaining “a relaxed and open frame of mind”.
  • Excessive voltage, which will produce an unusually bright corona.
    An unsettled energy body: “The energy body takes time… to settle down after therapy. Results can also be misleading when photographic an subject after, for example, a session of meditation”.
  • The wrong length of exposure time: “There appear to be slow cycles of activity that can be missed if exposure time is too short”.
    The article concludes with some brief thoughts on the hypothetical usage of Kirlian photography for medical and agricultural purposes, again citing the work of Dr. Thelma Moss.

As far as Kirlian photography is concerned, little appears to have changed since this article was published in the early eighties. The alleged medical or spiritual uses of the technique still have their adherents despite a lack of solid evidence underpinning their claims. The one difference is that the subject seems to have lost a degree of cultural cache: search Amazon for books on Kirlian photography and most of the titles that come up will be from the nineties at the latest. Those photographed auras may have fascinated people in the seventies and eighties, but perhaps they’ve lost their allure in our CGI-saturated millennium.

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