clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Aura Photography Invaded Instagram

The colorful portraits that purport to reveal the energies of their subjects have migrated from hippie bookstores to your Explore tab. Is the trend just another internet fad or does it have any basis in science?

Ringer illustration

“Ever since I can remember I have seen colors in connection with people.” So begins Edgar Cayce’s “Auras: An Essay on the Meaning of Colors,” which the American clairvoyant wrote shortly before he died in 1945. “I have been told that with proper equipment it is possible for almost anyone to see an aura,” he wrote.

Depending on who you believe, Cayce was on to something. In 1939, Russian inventor Semyon Davidovich Kirlian invented a method of taking portraits using a metal plate and an electric current that he claimed could reveal the “life force” of his subjects—even predict illnesses. Kirlian photography is regarded as the predecessor to what we now know as aura photography. In the 1980s, a man named Guy Coggins invented an aura camera for the mass market: the AuraCam 3000. Coggins later introduced the AuraCam 6000, which is what most aura photographers use today. The camera is more or less a Polaroid hooked up to two metal plates that function as hand sensors. These plates purport to gather biofeedback data and electromagnetic field measurements from a subject, and then an algorithm assigns colors to that data, which are printed onto the picture. Aura photography has long been a feature of new-age bookstores and kitschy, crystal-filled shops. But, today it can mostly be found on Instagram.

Aura Imaging

Or rather, on Instagram and thanks to Instagram, which has helped reinvent the entire market, stripping it of its “crunchiness” and giving it a trendy new sheen. While traditional aura photography is still around, it seems squarely positioned in the old guard of new-age practices—on web 1.0 websites and behind the beige doors of alternative medicine businesses. Now, aura photography has been reimagined and repackaged for the Instagram age.

Julia Summers says the app inspired her own aura photography business. About a year ago, the owner of the Los Angeles–based Auradome began to see aura photos populating Instagram’s Explore tab. “I had never heard of it before and I was instantly obsessed,” she says. Take a quick scan of the #auraphotography hashtag and it’s not hard to see why. Row after row of Polaroid-like portraits have hues splashed across them to create a spilled-paint effect, as if someone had emptied jars of paint on top of the grid. It’s mesmerizing. It’s almost as if aura photography were made for the platform.

Last spring, Summers invested $10,000 in an AuraCam 6000. “Each photo is two exposures,” says Summers. “The first exposure is a normal picture and the second exposure is the electricity from your body measured by the hand sensors being translated into colors.” The camera uses a discontinued Fuji film, which makes the photos all the more precious. Each session at Auradome costs $40. “I have a background in photography and used to run a photo booth business, so the business side of it came naturally to me,” she says. Auradome, which offers its services in pop-up form at various events, isn’t Summer’s full-time gig yet, but she’s hoping it will be.

Summers’s Auradome is one of the many aura photography studios that have grown in popularity because of Instagram’s marketing power. “People who seek these events out are some of the nicest people I have ever met,” says Summers. “The events are definitely becoming more popular as our Instagram presence grows. I think people are naturally curious, and even if they’re not 100 percent sold on the science of it, it makes for some really beautiful art.”

That ethos is populating a new genre of Instagram content. Aura photography falls squarely into new-age Instagram, which is home to witches, crystal healers, Moon Juicers, and tarot card readers. Accounts like @thehoodwitch, @Amarisland, @ethony, and, of course, @radianthuman_—the poster child for Instagram aura photography—are leading the charge with posts that are equal parts ethereal, motivational, and indulgent. It doesn’t hurt that their visuals are hypnotizing. They all espouse eyebrow-raising (and sometimes even shoddy) science, but mesmerizing art.

Eileen Lee, the Detroit-based cofounder of Aura Aura (another big Instagram hit), acknowledges that there’s nothing new about aura photography, except for how it’s being experienced and shared now. “It’s become something of a mainstream cultural phenomenon over the past several years thanks to social media, and mostly Instagram,” she says. Lee always had a passing interest in aura photography, but after coming across Carlo Van de Roer’s The Portrait Machine Project, she became “obsessed.” In 2017, Lee “took the plunge” and bought an AuraCam 6000, and Aura Aura was born. The brand quickly built a following on Instagram (where it currently has more than 10,000 followers). Lee does aura portraits Thursday through Sunday, and also often books Aura Aura for events. She’s even in the process of working on her Twelve Month Aura study, charting how auras change over time.

View this post on Instagram

Last August is when AURA AURA was born. It's been a full year, and that's so crazy! It blows my mind every single day that I am doing what I love and actually making a living doing it. My interest in photography began in my late teens. I used to take 35mm photos of bands and musicians, through Real Detroit Weekly and on my own for an online zine based in California. My practice of this craft has changed significantly, but nevertheless film photography is one of my "professions" right now and that's crazy amazing. While I do have several other things going on "work-wise" aside from @weareauraaura ( I'm such a capricorn ) - it's my baby, and one of the things that matters most to me. I'm so grateful for all the amazing opportunities that have opened up in the past year, and how many perspectives and paradigms we've shifted with each of you amazing humans I've had the pleasure of meeting this past year. It's been fascinating & fun exploring auras over time, and relating our auric states to our life narratives via one of my oldest friends @stephanielynne. We are learning so much thanks to the wonderful participants of @twelvemonthaura - we love you guys! For those of you who might be feeling unsure about where you're at in life - hear me out: Last July, I was in a panic because I had to quit a job I had moved back home to Michigan for - because it felt wrong. 8 months in I realized that it went against the life I had built for myself since 2013 and my core beliefs. We had just signed a lease for @greyareadetroit, and AURA AURA was starting to manifest - but basically the future was all up in the air. The unknown was scary. SO SCARY. I was fighting with my former "employer" to get paid what I was promised while also working gigs for a friend in order to make ends meet. At that time, my pal @lellopepper told me that a year from that moment we'd probably be laughing at the whole situation and that everything would work out. Elise was so right, and I couldn't be more grateful for this journey. Thank you to everyone who has supported and believed in us this past year - it truly means the world to me and is so humbling Photo by the talented @emmakmorris ✨

A post shared by AURA AURA (@weareauraaura) on

Since the days of Edgar Cayce, the entire field has drawn its skeptics. Much has been written and studied to assert that the supposed phenomena present in aura photography don’t actually exist. “There is obviously no such thing as the ‘human aura,’” William Coker, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin wrote me via email. “If it existed, it would of course have been studied for centuries by physicists and biologists. It’s not there. It’s completely imaginary.” But that hasn’t stopped the aura photography market from attracting ardent followers.

Pseudoscientific pursuits like aura photography were a source of fascination long before anyone had an Instagram account. “Interest in nonsense and pseudoscience is faddish and goes in cycles. You will not hear anything about flying saucers and UFOs for several decades, and then suddenly they are in the news again for no obvious reason,” Coker tells me. “Nonsense gets recycled over and over, because there is money to be made from novelty. There’s a new generation coming up, with cash to spend, roughly every decade.” In the Instagram era, aura photography has been dressed up and given a bright, hip new look—it feels more like it belongs in the Goop catalog than in a local hippie bookstore reeking of incense. “Online publicity helps greatly,” Coker says.

But what’s the harm in any of this? Aura photography makes perfect sense for the Instagram generation: It’s visual and beautiful, and the process of getting one is both offbeat and compelling—it’s as much about an intangible experience as a a tangible thing, a generational preference. What some critics take issue with is the tenuous relation between aura photography and color therapy, also known as chromotherapy. While looking for a local aura photographer, I stumbled upon a website advertising such services. When I called, I was told that the business used a machine called the Biopulsar-Reflexograph, which did more than capture an aura—it could photograph individual organs. Believers claim the machine can tell whether a woman has had a hysterectomy (and whether she was happy or sad about that) and whether someone’s liver was ailing. Some such devices are certified in European countries; I was told the Biopulsar-Reflexograph is accepted by German medical insurance companies as a holistic preventive device.

Are such pseudoscientific novelties becoming more popular? Maarten Boudry, a philosopher and researcher at Ghent University and also the coauthor of a paper on the evolution of pseudoscience, doesn’t necessarily think so, but suggests that such thoughts are getting more attention now. In high-tech times, the existence of alternative theories, therapies, and medicines stands out. Boudry pointed me to a blog post he wrote in 2015 about how pseudosciences are consistent over time and persist despite advancements in science and technology. “Almost all pseudosciences tap into the universal cognitive biases, intuitions and heuristics of the human mind—courtesy of evolution by natural selection,” Boudry wrote. “Intuitive appeal makes up for lack of epistemic warrant.” Put bluntly, all the scientific evidence in the world cannot compete with the wills and wants of the human brain.

The harm, then, perhaps, is that the hypnotic, trendy appeal of Instagrammified aura photography—and perhaps new-age and alternative therapies more generally—could make a new generation more susceptible to unsubstantiated medical treatments. Tim Caulfield is a law professor and research director at the University of Alberta and the author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. “There’s a growing body of evidence that shows social media spreads misinformation, and unfortunately misinformation gets more traction than truth,” he says. “Part of that’s because you can make misinformation seem sexier and more exciting and cooler. There are no bounds to what you can say and how you can present stuff.” Social networks help amplify this, Caulfield says, because they show users people like themselves, and humans are prone to connecting with people similar to them. “Studies show the power of narrative, especially when it’s someone like you. You might find their story about losing weight compelling, or about some sort of therapy that works. A good narrative, a good testimonial will outweigh empirical evidence.”

Caulfield says he understands why people are drawn to aura photography and he doesn’t want to be seen as the fun police. “I get some pushback to my work. ‘All this is for fun, don’t take it too seriously, people can think critically and still explore these fun things,’” he says. “People go to see tarot card readers and they don’t really believe it, and I get that: It’s presented as entertainment. Even astrology has this deep history! I’m a Sagittarius, the most philosophical of the astrological signs!” he says, laughing. “That stuff, it’s fun. The problem is it increasingly isn’t being presented just as entertainment. It’s often presented as factual.” And for the most susceptible, products based on pseudoscience or alternative therapies can lead to physical harm or financial loss, or both. To a larger point, Caulfield explains that we are living in an era of misinformation, and there’s fear of a general erosion of critical thinking. While interest in aura photography is hardly on par with the movements countering vaccination or climate change, Caulfield says it could be something of a gateway into other alternative “sciences.”

“People have speculated that millennials in particular are more open to this idea of some kind of mystical asset to our lives and some speculate this is a sort of secular replacement for religion,” he says. “I think it’s complex.” The issue, says Caulfield, is when these things aren’t presented as spiritual or mystical, but rather as science. Admittedly, he says he can get caught up in the critiquing. “We do need to be careful not to hyper-analyze everything, but when it crosses over and suggests scientific meaning, I do think at that moment we should put on our critical-thinking hats.”

The most Instagram-famous aura photographer lives in Portland, Oregon. Her name is Christina Lonsdale (of the aforementioned @radianthuman_ account) and her celebrity rose after stars like Paltrow (via Goop) sang her praises. Lonsdale has been the subject of a variety of profiles, and is quickly becoming a regular at major festivals and events. Unfortunately her schedule didn’t permit a visit while I was reporting this story: Her business, Radiant Human, has blown up alongside her, and she’s now often on the road, doing pop-up shops across the country.

Since the full Instagram aura experience wasn’t available to me, I drove 25 minutes west of metro Portland into suburban Beaverton. There’s a bookstore there called Crystal Heart Books & Beads nestled between a Kia dealership and a Buffalo Wild Wings. The windows are lined with crystals; shelves are dedicated to Himalayan salt lamps. The space is crammed full but cozy; it is inviting but it is not Instagram friendly.

There was no chic dome, but there was a closet. I placed my hands on two sensors sitting on either side of me, and the store clerk draped a cloak over my shoulders. “Give me a beautiful, model smile!” he said. It all felt more like getting cheesy Christmas photos taken at Sears than being inside an Instagram playground. After I paid my $20, my photo was revealed. “Oh, that’s a pretty one!” my new best friend said. The photo was a bold yellow, bleeding into oranges and reds. In the lower-right corner, the brightness faded into a small spot of blues and greens alongside a larger splotch of violet. We both ooohed over the photo for a second, and then I took it and left … without knowing what any of it meant. The clerk could run the camera, but he said the person who could interpret the colors was out. I emailed a picture of my photo to Summers of Auradome. I won’t bore you with the details—to anyone but the subject, the image is likely more fascinating than what it means. But Summers offered a list of positive adjectives that included “compassionate,” “honest,” “generous,” and “intellectual.” I liked what I heard (of course), but what she ended her email with caught my attention: “Your heart chakra is activated and glowing, which I don’t always see. This means you have opened your heart to others.” It was a nice thing to think about myself. And of course, it gave me a pretty picture to add to the tiled rows on the Instagram Explore page.

Video Games

The Video Game Remake Boom Is Producing Nostalgic Hype and Uncomfortable Questions

The Town

Will AI Video Replace Hollywood?

The Bill Simmons Podcast

The Future of Everything With Derek Thompson, Plus UFC 300’s Missing Main Event and the Rock’s Turn With Ariel Helwani

View all stories in Tech