Aura of the Object in Art.
From an artwork’s unique presence in space and time stems a mystical force that comprises its “aura” – the loss of which by 1936 cultural critics like Walter Benjamin were lamenting. In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin wrote that images were becoming deprived of a kind of magic due to media capable of being instantly reproduced with the rise of photography and film. However, by the time Benjamin had penned his essay, efforts to capture psychic or metaphysical emanations, known as “aura photography” had been around for decades, along with both film and photography being the media of choice to capture such spiritual variety these both arose to pose challenges to the notion of the artistic aura.
So it may come as no surprise in the age of the ubiquitous image that more recently the practice of capturing one’s aura on film is trending again. Major cultural destinations such as last year’s Pioneer Works Village Fête as well as the Aspen Art Museum held pop-ups hosted by roving aura photography lab Radiant Human who have been traveling around over the past few years. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, Goop, had their staff’s aura captured on camera and the lab also captured the auras of guests at the actress Zosia Mamet’s wedding.
In New York City’s Chinatown, located in a mini mall, a shoebox of a store called Magic Jewelry has a queue that snakes around its interior with people waiting for aura photographs. An impressive 11,000 results are yielded by the Instagram hashtag #auraphotography as it is that posting one’s colourful aura on social media is virtually de rigueur. The artist behind Radiant Human, Christina Lonsdale, says “the practice’s present-day popularity may in part be due to its ability to serve as a conduit for those seeking a new kind of self-exploration. Perceptions can pivot with the click of a shutter, illuminating our truest selves, and giving new light to what was there all along.”
Paranormal Victorian Age.
Originating in the Victorian era was the notion that a camera could lend the photographer a clairvoyant eye. Paranormalism was taking Europe and North America by storm and photography as a medium was then becoming relatively accessible due to the developments of the wet collodion process. These technological advancements in the field of photography primed the environment. Franz Anton Mesmer’s 18th-century theory that all animate and inanimate things were charged with a “vital fluid” was popular among the paranormal beliefs during the Victorian age. Mesmer also claimed that he could tap into this universal flow because his hands secreted invisible energy which allowed him to do so.
Those inspired by Mesmerism wanted to show how objects and beings were composed of the vital fluids while other occult photographers sought to record ghostly forms. Why couldn’t a camera see these invisible energies if a psychic could, so the argument went. The “Odic force,” a hypothetical vital energy proposed by Austrian chemist Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Reichenbach in the 1860s, was an energy that was attempted to be captured on film through the process of photographing objects in complete darkness. It can be seen as a progenitor of today’s Goop-sanctioned aura photography as well as a subset of Victorian occult photography which marked the outset of effluvist photography in general.
Underpinning this effluvist photography was the discovery of the X-ray in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. Thus it became a science, that the invisible could be made visible due to the new radiographic equipment. Psychic Ted Serios became notorious for a method called thoughtography which came about through its predecessor – in France, just before the turn of the century, physician Hippolyte Baraduc and soldier Louis Darget utilized the technology to document vital fluids by pressing subjects’ fingers or foreheads onto sensitized photographic plates; Baraduc and Darget believed the images were keys to perceiving the health, mood, or even thoughts of the subject. These methods inspired artists like László Moholy-Nagy as well as advancing the field of abstract photography as imprinted a-photographic forms were recorded.
With an otherworldly light emanating from the hands, a medical student in radiology who was a childhood friend of the painter Marcel Duchamp was depicted in the 1910 Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel, a curious painting of occult proportions that also featured the comingling of radiography with art. The radiance evokes the halos surrounding hands in paintings of saints—or effluvist photographs.
Electrography, the basis of aura photography today, came out of experimentation with components of radiographic devices in Russia during this time. Again, the vital energies of a subject were thought to be revealed due to an imperative upon electricity or so thought the Russian scientist Jakob von Narkiewicz-Jodko. Metal plates that were electrically charged by an induction coil informed his photographic processes. A glowing silhouette was produced by a coronal discharge from photosensitive material atop a charged plate that came into contact with an object or body part.
Telling psychic insights were thought to be provided by photos developed decades later in 1939 by Semyon and Valentina Kirlian, a Russian electrical engineer and his biologist wife, who by that time had independently discovered coronal discharge and dubbed it “Kirlian photography.” In fact, Kirlian photography played a large role in the spread of colour photography due to it striking colour spectrum and the fact that, at that time, colour photography had become more commerically viable. Published in 1970, the book Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain which documented the couple’s findings garnered attention in the West.
New Age Technology.
It was around this time, during a New Age milieu of the 1970s, that a Californian entrepreneur named Guy Coggins devised a clunky camera, building on a century of efforts to photograph the aura. The likes of the aforementioned store Magic Jewelry and Radiant Human lab use his AuraCam 6000, which was a later release of the AuraCam 3000 which came to market in the early 1980s – Coggins himself was able to design his aura camera because of his background in electrical engineering. He also has a LinkedIn endorsement for chakra balancing, it must be noted. In Coggins camera model biofeedback sensors are contained within two charged metal plated that are linked to the instant-film of the camera, an adaptation of the earlier Kirlian methods which created contact prints.
Electromagnetic data is registered when the subject places their hands upon the plates for a reading; an algorithm then translates specific frequencies into hues predetermined by Coggins and a team of clairvoyants. The generated hues are superimposed as a secondary likeness upon the first initial exposure which captured the person’s actual likeness. Purportedly, chakra energies can be read through the representation of the subject’s aura as it is represented by the polychromatic haze. The subject in questioned is furnished with self-knowledge from the photographic interpretation of the clouds surrounding them as the one who takes the photograph becomes part-spiritual medium and part-psychoanalyst.
Biofeedback sensors, an algorithm, and a computer webcam complete with a photography software package comprise to make an at-home aura detector which is Coggins’s latest innovation known as WinAura. Though the AuraCam 6000 – which aligns more neatly with the return of analog photography and the popularity of art “experiences” – is far more popular than WinAura, Coggins’s latest technology puts aura readings in the hands of the subject. Instagram’s neat, multicoloured grid hosts thousands of images of online chakra energy images that are disseminated via the aura photography process according to the person receiving the reading, apt in the age of social media. In contrast to its predecessors, today’s aura photography uses an expansive virtual network to capture a collective energy or mood: aptly, a shifting picture of our time.
Words by Elijah (Content Marketer).