Kirlian photography is a collection of photographic techniques used to capture the phenomenon of electrical coronal discharges.
It is named after Semyon Kirlian, who, in 1939, accidentally discovered that if an object on a photographic plate is connected to a high-voltage source, an image is produced on the photographic plate.
The technique has been variously known as “electrography“, “electrophotography“, “corona discharge photography” (CDP), “bioelectrography“, “gas discharge visualization (GDV)“, “electrophotonic imaging (EPI)“, and, in Russian literature, “Kirlianography“.
Kirlian photography has been the subject of scientific research, parapsychology research, and art. Paranormal claims have been made about Kirlian photography, but these claims are unsupported by the scientific community. To a large extent, it has been used in alternative medicine research.
In 1889, Czech B. Navratil coined the word “electrography“. Seven years later in 1896, a French experimenter, H. Baraduc, created electrographs of hands and leaves.
In 1898, Polish-Belarusian engineer Jakub Jodko-Narkiewicz demonstrated electrography at the fifth exhibition of the Russian Technical Society.
In 1939, two Czechs, S. Pratt, and J. Schlemmer published photographs showing a glow around leaves. The same year, Russian electrical engineer Semyon Kirlian and his wife Valentina developed Kirlian photography after observing a patient in Krasnodar hospital who was receiving medical treatment from a high-frequency electrical generator.
They had noticed that when the electrodes were brought near the patient’s skin, there was a glow similar to that of a neon discharge tube.
The Kirlians conducted experiments in which photographic film was placed on top of a conducting plate, and another conductor was attached to a hand, a leaf or other plant material. The conductors were energized by a high-frequency high-voltage power source, producing photographic images typically showing a silhouette of the object surrounded by an aura of light.
In 1958, the Kirlians reported the results of their experiments for the first time. Their work was virtually unknown until 1970, when two Americans, Lynn Schroeder and Sheila Ostrander, published a book, Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain.
High-voltage electrophotography soon became known to the general public as Kirlian photography. Although little interest was generated among western scientists, Russians held a conference on the subject in 1972 at Kazakh State University.
Kirlian photography was used in the former Eastern Bloc in the 1970s. The corona discharge glow at the surface of an object subjected to a high-voltage electrical field was referred to as a “Kirlian aura” in Russia and Eastern Europe.
In 1975, Belarusian scientist Victor Adamenko wrote a dissertation titled Research of the structure of High-frequency electric discharge (Kirlian effect) images. The scientific study of what the researchers called the Kirlian effect was conducted by Victor Inyushin at Kazakh State University.
Early in the 1970s, Thelma Moss and Kendall Johnson at the Center for Health Sciences at the UCLA conducted extensive research into Kirlian photography. Moss led an independent and unsupported parapsychology laboratory that was shut down by the university in 1979.
Results of scientific experiments published in 1976 involving Kirlian photography of living tissue (human fingertips) showed that most of the variations in corona discharge streamer length, density, curvature, and color can be accounted for by the moisture content on the surface of and within the living tissue.
Konstantin Korotkov developed a technique similar to Kirlian photography called “gas discharge visualization” (GDV).
Korotkov’s GDV camera system consists of hardware and software to directly record, process and interpret GDV images with a computer. Korotkov’s web site promotes his device and research in a medical context.
Izabela Ciesielska at the Institute of Architecture of Textiles in Poland used Korotkov’s GDV camera to evaluate the effects of human contact with various textiles on biological factors such as heart rate and blood pressure, as well as corona discharge images.
The experiments captured corona discharge images of subjects’ fingertips while the subjects wore sleeves of various natural and synthetic materials on their forearms.
The results failed to establish a relationship between human contact with the textiles and the corona discharge images and were considered inconclusive.
In 1968, Thelma Moss, a psychology professor, headed the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI), which was later renamed the Semel Institute.
The NPI had a laboratory dedicated to parapsychology research and staffed mostly with volunteers. The lab was unfunded, unsanctioned and eventually shut down by the university.
Toward the end of her tenure at UCLA, Moss became interested in Kirlian photography, a technique that supposedly measured the “auras” of a living being. According to Kerry Gaynor, one of her former research assistants, “many felt Kirlian photography’s effects were just a natural occurrence.”
Paranormal claims of Kirlian photography have not been observed or replicated in an experiment by the scientific community. The physiologist Gordon Stein has written that Kirlian photography is a hoax that has “nothing to do with health, vitality, or mood of a subject photographed.”
Scientists such as Beverly Rubik have explored the idea of a human biofield using Kirlian photography research, attempting to explain the Chinese discipline of Qigong. Qigong teaches that there is a vitalistic energy called qi (or chi) that permeates all living things.
Rubik’s experiments relied on Konstantin Korotkov’s GDV device to produce images, which were thought to visualize these qi biofields in chronically ill patients.
Rubik acknowledges that the small sample size in her experiments “was too small to permit a meaningful statistical analysis“. Claims that these energies can be captured by special photographic equipment are criticized by skeptics.