Two Coins

Erich Brumback


  1. In another version, the photographer doesn’t remember where he got the camera, strange because it is such an unusual one. At some point in the past it grew a metal shell around itself, as well as a window it can peer out of, protected. It found two cables that connect it to separate blue boxes with the outline of a human hand on each. It has grafted a printer onto itself. On the side of its chassis is printed AURACAM 6000.

    The photographer finds that his hands overlap these outlines exactly, and that the shell protects the camera as it rattles around in the back of the van as he drives west. At rest stops, when he peers tentatively into the little window, the camera looks like it was just a regular polaroid before all these modifications. The camera’s glassy eye staring back keeps him from peering in for too long.

    He does remember where he got the van, from a plumber on craigslist who was downsizing, easily covered by his grant money. The lettering had been taken off the side of the vehicle but the outlines still faintly revealed a last name and phone number.

    He drives the 2000 miles to Park City, Utah because the camera told him to.

    Silver-tongued, the camera only sees the good in people, the good around them, communicated by their hands on the sensors. The photograph it lets loose, hanging from its mouth, is drenched in color. The subject’s “biofeedback,” their “aura,” is interpreted in the only language the camera knows: color. The subject is shrouded in a cloud of neon orange, green, violet, or whatever else corresponds to their inner strengths, whatever secrets the camera wants to tell back to them.

    And the camera explains itself. After the photograph, it prints out a data sheet to help interpret the portrait. It identifies which colors appear above the subject’s head, on their left and right sides. It tells what these colors and their placement mean. It even recasts them and their aura in ampersands and asterisks, makes them into a tiny grammatical voodoo doll. It delivers these two documents like stone slabs.

    According to the camera, violet means “mystical, unifying.”

    Blue means “peaceful, contemplative”

    Green means “healing, teaching.”

    Yellow means “sunny, exhilarating.”

    Orange means “creative, artistic.”

    Red means “passion, force of will.”

    In Park City the photographer parks the van, walks up to the hotel, and meets with his contact. He requests a hand cart with which to move the camera in. With the camera and its appendages loaded onto the cart, he moves up the crowded street toward the festival. It is January and he is quite cold, pushing the cart with hand and clutching his jacket to his neck with the other. The cart’s wheels catch on the bumpy pavement and jiggle the camera around. It rattles and complains.

    If I waste time daydreaming the camera will tell me I’m contemplative.

    If I say things that make no sense, the camera will tell me I’m mystical.

    I do both of these things, and the camera affirms me.

    I don’t believe the camera will tell me anything else.

    The camera says “violet is a high degree of sensitive intimacy, leading to complete fusion between subject and object, so that everything which is thought and desired must become reality. Enchantment, charm, sensitivity and deep spiritual understanding are the qualities most important to you.”

    The camera says “blue is the blissful fulfillment of the highest degrees of unity, of at-one-ness, of a reunion with earth-mother. It is truth and trust, love and dedication. Peace, tranquility, contentment, tenderness, love, and affection are the qualities most important to you.”

    Even Mattel’s magic 8-ball gives positive answers twice as often as negative ones.

    Aura photography records what some psychics claim to see, a typically invisible energy field around people. The color of this field is taken to mean different things, but what color is the field if you can’t see it? Ultraviolet? In the tundra, reindeer are refusing to cross newly-erected power lines because they randomly discharge shards of ultraviolet light, while in Park City the photographer is offering to photograph the ultraviolet around people. His camera knows how to bring it into the visible spectrum. His camera knows how to sell it.



Photographs are concoctions of light and time, but in some photographs you can substitute electricity for light. You make them in the dark. Photographs made this way are called Kirlian photographs, named after a pair of Russian scientists who accidentally invented the method in the 1930’s. Instead of using a camera, they laid their subjects—leaves, coins, and fingertips—across a glass plate and briefly electrified them. Then the images crept out from the void. All of these subjects could exude blue and violet halos of electricity: electricity snaking through the veins of leaves or the grooves of a thumbprint. Victor Adamenko, a scientist and neighbor of the Kirlians, began experimenting with their method in the 1950’s. Photographing a torn leaf, he found that the aura in his photograph represented the leaf intact. Like a ghost wandering through walls, the electricity had taken paths which were no longer there.

In the photographs of coins, without inner pathways for the corona to take, it simply lines the circumference as if it were a miniature solar eclipse. Kirlian photography allows you to see the invisible process of coronal discharge, the way eclipse glasses allow you to see the moon chewing into the sun well before you notice the loss of daylight, well before the crickets spring to song and the people scream and howl and the curved bowl of the valley where I saw this condensed their vocalizations into an extract of panic and satisfaction.

The conversations around these coins fill with speculation. Parapsychologists and mystics interpreted Kirlian photographs as representations of a supernatural life force or aura. At a party, one person told me the ISO rating was just a technical specification, that the glasses would work they just couldn’t be legally intended for the purpose of viewing an eclipse. Nuances in color, size, and brightness of this life force corresponded to the physical and emotional state of the subject. Besides, libraries and some businesses were handing good pairs out for free. Why pay for them? What if they didn’t arrive in time? This fluid, if better understood, could allow for new methods of healing. Someone else had acquired a pair of welder’s goggles.

The difference is that Kirlian photography offers a way of seeing the coronal discharge around its subject. If you take the photograph away, you just have a coin on a plate. The eclipse, once it reaches totality, becomes something you want to take the glasses off for. At that point, you’re not imaging the occult anymore. You’re not affixing a lens to it. You’re standing in it. The light turns silver. The world reveals that it has always been a theater, the thin membrane of a curtain so close it’s brushing against your arms, lacy silk in your hands. The rotten hole in the sky is leaking this writhing, silver plasma. There’s a lid in place that barely keeps it from boiling over.

In 1779, a physician named Franz Mesmer published his theory that an ongoing transfer of energy occurred between all living and inanimate things. He referred to this energy as the universal fluid. His theory, originally called animal magnetism, came to be called mesmerism. Early parapsychologists that believed in the universal fluid of mesmerism, and especially those that attempted to photograph it, are known as the effluvists. An assemblage of weirdos with jars of leeches, inspired by the unbelievable new technology of X-rays, they believed they could photograph unseen qualities of a human subject beyond merely the skeletal system. They could create devices to photograph thoughts, dreams, souls, or the universal fluid itself.

Although Kirlian photography is a recent example of an effluvist method, it peaked in the 1970’s with the work of Thelma Moss, a researcher who oversaw a small UCLA laboratory entirely dedicated to Kirlian photography. A firm believer in the supernatural qualities of the aura she was photographing, Moss conducted a variety of experiments into its implications for healing. During her time at the lab she was visited by people with other interests in her work, including representatives of NASA (needing a technology for exposing metal fatigue in spacecraft hulls), George Harrison (needing cover art for Living in the Material World), and Uri Geller (needing physical evidence of his psychic abilities). But soon after the lab was closed by UCLA at the end of the 70’s, Kirlian photography receded to a point of obscurity.

The only form of fluidic photography that is still practiced to any significant degree is aura photography. In this practice, the subject sits against a black background and places their hands on electronic sensors. The photographer takes their portrait with a Polaroid camera while the hand sensors wire feedback to the camera, where it is used to overlay a swath of colors on the portrait. The resulting image is interpreted for the subject by the photographer.

I read in another essay that the early effluvists’ photographs were characterized by their opponents as not representing anything but the effluvists’ “own operational misadventures.” They were accused of photographing nothing but dust, stray dollops of light, and blots of dye that got mixed up in the images. Then I realized that this essay is one in my own series of operational misadventures. I’ve tried over and over to write about Kirlian photography, and even this attempt may not represent much.

The other essay was “Photographs of Fluids: An Alphabet of Invisible Rays” by Clément Chéroux, from the book The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. Chéroux specifies photographs of fluids as a category of occult photography distinct from photographs of spirits and photographs of mediums. Unlike these other two categories, which focus on seeing or interacting with the dead, photographs of fluids pertain entirely to the realm of the living.

If I waste time daydreaming the camera will tell me I’m contemplative.

If I say things that make no sense, the camera will tell me I’m mystical.

I emailed a popular aura photographer, asking her if she’d be willing to share her color interpretation key with me. Someone from her tour production team emailed me back with a link to an Instagram photo showing the key. It struck me that this photographer is running a business, a combined studio and photo lab in the back of a van, with a staff and a tour schedule, all the dates of which have sold out. They interpret the colors somewhat differently than other practitioners do.

If I waste time daydreaming their camera will tell me I’m sensitive.

If I say things that make no sense their camera will tell me I’m unconventional.

The kinds of aesthetics that often pertain to the occult— bleak, colorless palettes and recognizable symbols of death— yield to colorful, abstracted forms in many kinds of fluidic photographs. It’s an occult of the living, and we’re literally beings of fluids. Vitality, it turns out, is easy to market. Aura photography always presents its subjects with a positive interpretation, but what’s the negative side? It’s too easy that the colors only speak to the good in people, never caution or question but immediately affirm.1 Why can’t I have a photograph that will be real with me? That will tell me when I’m being selfish, cowardly, lazy, or pretentious?

Eclipse glasses are strong enough to safely show you the eclipse, but in doing so they obscure everything else, everything but this one, central event. After I took the glasses off, it wasn’t just the eclipse I kept looking up at. Stars had materialized around it.

1 Later, I see in a different Instagram picture of the color key that there is one sliver of negativity nestled into it: white can indicate confusion. Curiously, the word confusion is the only one obscured beneath the edge of an adjacent polaroid in the image sent to me by the staff member. But white can otherwise indicate that a subject is open-minded, intense, or non-judgemental. These qualities are not covered up.

Erich Brumback grew up in Manassas, Virginia but now lives in Oregon. His writing about ambivalence, abandonment, and other topics has appeared online and elsewhere.

You can reach Erich here: