Aura you experienced? "Paranormal" portraiture

Writer Jess Hemerly is currently a graduate student at UC Berkeley's School of Information. Photographer Jonathan Koshi is a designer in San Francisco.
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In 1992, a man named Guy Coggins combined Kirlian photography with biofeedback and introduced Aura Imaging photography. He began selling cameras through his Redwood City company, Progen, and according to the company's FAQ, there are only about 250 owners of these in the US. One of the owners is in San Francisco's Japantown. You'd miss it if you didn't know what to look for. It's a small gift shop called Sharaku across from the plaza, filled with Japanese textiles, figurines, and replica instruments. The only clue that something else goes on in this shop are yellowed, letter-sized, photocopied signs on the window advertising aura photography. But for $15 (plus tax) the old lady who runs the shop will reluctantly take you into the back, set up her Biofeedback Imaging Color Spectrometer 3000, and photograph your aura. And yes, that is quite a profit margin. According to the camera company's site, the cost per photo is about $3.30 (including film and "functional warranty replacement" charge).

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine decided that getting his aura photographed would be the perfect way to say goodbye to 2009 and invited my husband-to-be and I to join.

There were a couple tourists in the claustrophobic shop, browsing the racks and shelves of knickknacks, but when we asked to have our auras photographed she took us straight to the shop's back room. This is where the camera lives along with a microwave on a table, a heater, some boxes, and a bookshelf lined with what look like old Japanese serial novels.

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In front of a white background screen is a bench on which she set the biofeedback boxes and motioned for me to sit down. The camera she uses is a big rectangular box with a window on the front in which I could can see my reflection pretty clearly. I placed my hands on the metal finger guides and sat as still as possible. I made no effort to think anything other than trying not to look like I had a double chin -- my biggest fear in photographs. She made some adjustments with the camera and I half expected to feel something coming out of the metal under my hands, but after about 10 seconds she told me I was done.

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As she pulled the Fuji instant film out of the camera and set it next to the microwave, a dot matrix printer began to print an ASCII diagram of my aura and I - with @'s for eyes and letters representing the colors - and explanations of the dominant colors representing future (left side), experience (above), and expression (right). The blue above my head means I am best described by "depth-of-feeling," while the blue to my right means I "put calm into the world". My orange left side means I am coming into a period of creativity and sensuality. Not bad!

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After a few more minutes, she tore the plastic off the film and handed my aura photograph to me. The first thing I noticed was how colorful the image was. Then I noticed that the colors of my aura matched the colors of the hoodie I had on. Coincidence? Joe Nickell, Research Fellow at the Center for Skeptical Inquiry, wrote a piece for the Skeptical Inquirer in 2000 about his experience with aura photography, titled "Aura Photography: A Candid Shot." After having his first photo taken, Joe stepped away from the booth to talk to some students and decided to return and see if the photo came out the same. It didn't. In fact, far from it. The photographer suggested that he'd been "teaching" students between photos and that changed his aura. Joe was unconvinced, as I am not completely convinced that my aura wasn't based on my clothing.

Real aura or not, the pictures are far cooler than anything your mom made you have taken at Olan Mills.

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  1. Easy hoax-test: take a picture of a banana on a stick, with a layer of foil and a couple of heating pads on the mood ring boxes.

    Don’t tell her that it’s a fake banana until after she starts cold-reading its experiences on the plantation.

  2. The reason they use Fuji Instant Film, is because, aside from the fact that Polaroid isn’t available anymore, they can rub the still-developing photo onto the floodlights, thus creating the ‘aura’ woo-woo effect on the print.

    It’s so obvious when they do it, it’s really boring.

  3. There’s an old couple in Aga Napa square (Cyprus) that have a kiosk. In all the times I’ve sat at the acoustic music bar opposite, I’ve never once saw one person use it.

    They were charging 20 Euros a pop. Madness. They’ve probably ploughed their life saving into it hoping it would a lucrative move….

  4. I’m going to set up shop with my digital camera, a dirty lens, and some KAI Power Tools plugins.

    Or maybe if I can get my hands on a LOMO LC-A. That would probably work too.

  5. @i_prefer_yeti, Good point. My understanding is that the superior craftsmanship of GAMA-GO hoodies make them impervious to such intrusive surveillance techniques as aura photography.

    1. Bucket, actually some people still point to those original photos as evidence of the paranormal. In fact, I actually got into an argument with someone a few weeks ago about this where the entire argument essentially boiled down to him not believing that people could manipulate photos at all prior to having software.

  6. I worked with a traveling psychic fair in the spring of 02.

    Aura revealing pictures was a part of the many services provided…

    Please read the disclaimer that comes with the pic. You will find no claim for this capability whatsoever.

    I was trained in using it, how to answer various questions and how to choose the color filter to overlay on the photo.

    Everyone is delighted at how accurate it is, oddly enough.

  7. $15 for a story and a portrait? Why not? 20 years from now you won’t remember how much you paid, but it’ll still make you happy whenever you see it.

  8. Funnily enough, when you stick your head through the ‘cowboy portrait’ hole at the carnival to get your picture taken, you’re not actually entering a wormhole to the Old West.

  9. Ahhhhh . . .

    There was a place around the corner from me in Belmont, CA (on the Avenue of the Fleas) that offered this service.

    They were in the business of selling angels and crystals and crystal angels, and probably other raw newage, but “aura photography” was prominently advertised.

    The abbreviation on the parking lot sign out back read “Crystal Angel Aura,” which seemed wonderfully dippy.

    They were out of business by the time I left in 2002.

  10. 15 bucks sounds like a fair price for some authentic American hokum.

    And yet the Amazing Randi still has a cool million for anyone who can prove paranormal events. Methinks his moola is safe.

  11. There’s a New Age-y crystals and wind-chimes and pewter dragons kind of store just North of Jack London Square in Oakland that has one too. The woman there would try to sell you some crystals or something because your Aura is so weak and patchy and has “holes” in it. You have clearly been giving your life force to the students.

    At the New-Agey store, you also get a multi-page ol’ time (computer paper on sprockets with the edge perforations ) extensive print out about what the colors in your Aura mean, ala the astrology “readings” at the county fair.

    If you are in Paris there is an Auro photography studio right around the corner from the Trinité Métro station.

  12. Bucket, actually some people still point to those original photos as evidence of the paranormal.

    I work as a copyeditor, and one of the books I’m editing tries to use Kirlian photography and aura cameras (plus a bunch of other wacky stuff) as scientific proof of the existence of the soul. I spend most of my energy trying to convince the author that she needs to use units when giving out-of-context measurements that don’t mean what she thinks they mean. Don’t get me started, I’ll rant all day.

  13. The author concludes: “Real aura or not, the pictures are far cooler than anything your mom made….”

    Real or Not? Real or Not?? Come on Jess, you’re not helping the world by pretending this might be real. Shame on you.

    1. This *is* helping the world. I for one sometimes wonder how the hokum is pulled off. Don’t you? Just because it’s bogus doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting to learn how it’s done. I like to know how magic tricks work, too.

  14. I can drive across town and see a loony who thinks she can cast Satan out of the mentally handicapped. And I’m related to her by marriage. I don’t get why I would travel to see another (albeit more charming) loony.

  15. Your HOODIE? Yeah im sure that throws off a huge magnetic field. The human body throws off energy. When a person hates you, you can feel it. When they love you, you can also feel it. Its energy. Plain and simple. Different emotions change the frequency. This will become basic scientific truth once people get all their baggage off of it. Its not spooky, or confusing, or even “spiritual” its just the way the universe was made.

    1. There is a range of frequencies within the electromagnetic spectrum with which I’m quite certain the hoodie can interact. It’s that range known as “visible light.”

      I’m afraid I don’t know how hoodies interact with the rest of the spectrum of energy, nor do I know what range of frequencies the camera used to generate the image. Unless you do know either of these things, you shouldn’t be close-minded to the possibility that the hoodie can interact with the relevant energy. I know I feel different when I clothe myself in fleece, maybe that’s energy.

  16. ah, there is a wonderful metaphysical shop in midwest city, oklahoma that has one of these. i’ve had mine done a number of times at that shop and they always came out red / orange, even with different photographers using the device. although i never really believed it was my “aura,” it was a totally awesome thing to go and do on an afternoon off of school and work, and fun to go home with a cool polaroid and a new bag of incense. the experience itself is entertainment. those metal hand-sensors are cool.

  17. Ha! There’s also one at Star Magic: The Second Generation, a crystal and pewter dragon shop that just opened in Noe Valley (in SF – they also have a black light “cave”) BS of course, but I think its fantastic – modern day spirit photography. I always thought it would be a wonderful idea to open up a daguerreotype studio. . .

  18. Kelly and I think you should have postcards of the top photo printed as a save-the-date for your wedding!

  19. @Anonymous I didn’t set out to conduct a scientific study, I just had my aura photo taken and wrote about the experience. I am not a professional skeptic or a paranormal expert, and I have no evidence to prove or disprove the possibility that there may be something to this. But I think that pointing out that the colors match my hoodie should be enough for you to infer that I don’t exactly buy it.

  20. sheesh save me from all these ‘scientists’! Whattya want for $15 bux?? A nice little old lady takes your shot on a polaroid and it costs less than a round of Venti Latte’s with biscotti… gimme a break you pikers.

    This has real value and isn’t some bogus value from a phony pro photographers studio. Where do I sign up?


  21. This form of aura photography is just a toy. Things have moved on by leaps and bounds since 1992. I am fascinated by Polycontrast Interference Photography which produces much more complex images. The PIP machine is a non-invasive, light analysis technology invented by Harry Oldfield. It requires bare skin to be exposed to a full spectrum controlled lighting environment.
    Many websites mention PIP including

  22. No, it’s not based on your clothing.

    I’ve seen two types of “aura” camera. One of them (seen in 1990?) employed an unmodified camera, and used a camera flash to project colored lights on a screen behind the subject. The colors weren’t visible during the flash. The other camera was the Coggins one you mention above.

    Send away for the literature from Coggins’ company. They “aren’t” fake, since the camera just takes electrical measurements at many spots (acupuncture points) on your hand, then uses blurred lights inside the camera to produce an image of what auras might look like, if we had any way to detect them. The image you see on the film is blurry light bulbs. I don’t recall if there was a microprocessor as part of it, but there might have been.

    If the particular photographer forgets to mention how the camera works, or implies that it images genuine auras, well, that’s not Coggin’s fault, eh?

  23. @PaulR – the pictures develop with the aura colors whether the photographer holds them, the person whose picture was taken holds them or they’re set aside as the one was in this article. Bill Beaty has it right: the camera creates visual images based on the electrical measurements the hand units pick up. It’s doctored in the same sense that enhanced color Hubble images or radio telescope data rendered as visible colors is ‘doctored.’ Whether and to what degree those measurements correspond to Kirlian auras or either corresponds to ‘life force’ or a ‘soul’ or reflects a person’s personality or emotional state is anyone’s guess.

    Really, it’s ridiculous to assume it’s sleight of hand that would have to be taught to every purchaser, some of whom are ‘true believers’ and none of whom could blow the whistle without hosing all future sales of the product. Try shaving that woolly thinking with Occam’s Razor next time.

  24. Really? Can’t anyone just have fun & enjoy a cool, unusual momento?!? Real or not- it’s different & now I want one too!

  25. Wow… in Sedona, AZ, which is a psychic/New Age mecca, these aura photographs cost $40 and up! Nice to know the real cost is only $3.50.

  26. I have pulled these cameras apart to see how they work

    It is a simple spinning multicoloured filter that produces a random pattern of light superimposed over the image.

    Pure smoke and mirrors ! Nothing paranormal or mystical.

    Take a stuffed toy or a doll and have it photographed

    it will have an aura ask them to photograph the blank background

    it will still have an aura :-)

    Doug an old skeptic photographer !

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