Like crystals and meditation, aura photography is the latest spiritual trend to pique the interest of fashionistas and celebrities — many of whom claim they're finding enlightenment through the psychedelic-looking photos, which show a subject's face in a cloud of colors.
That's exactly why I found myself recently at a small shop called Magic Jewelry in New York City's Chinatown, getting ready for my own "aura" to be photographed. My hands pressed lightly into metal plates atop two electric boxes, I looked at the camera and wondered if I should smile.
Too late. Before I'd even made up my mind, it was over. I hadn't even noticed a flash. While I waited for my aura photo to develop, I gazed at chakra charts and glass cases of crystals, sipping tea from a tiny Styrofoam cup.
"You have a very beautiful aura," the woman behind the counter told me when it was time for my reading. She held my photo in her hands — a Polaroid-sized blur of red, yellow and green, bright colors disguising my silhouette save for a glimpse of my right sleeve. In other aura photos, I'd been able to see the subjects' faces, but mine was hidden. This is a good thing, I was told: It means I have a big aura, lots of energy.
Well, I thought, this reading is off to a great start.
If you haven't noticed, aura photography is having a moment. It's been around for decades, but was featured recently by Harper's Bazaar, profiled last fall in The New York Times, and lauded by Gwyneth Paltrow in GOOP. There's even a Portland-based company called Radiant Human that has a futuristic, mobile "laboratory" it tours to different cities across the country, like a pop-up shop for aura photos. Search for the images on any social media platform and you'll find dozens of the hazy, neon-colored portraits alongside vignettes about self-discovery.
But what is an aura, exactly? As fans and spiritualists tell it, it's an invisible (to most people) field of energy that surrounds a person or object. The aura cameras work under the assumption that the energy in our hands mirrors the energy in and around our whole body. There are electrodes beneath the hand plates I pressed into that measured my hands' acupuncture points, sending information about my energy through wires to a computer, which used software to translate it to colors — supposedly creating the aura image that's then layered on top of the visible image.
Scientists and skeptics have a different theory: The colors are actually determined by how sweaty your hands are, or how hard you press down, for example. An article from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry likens the process to a polygraph that simply responds to an electrical current sent through the hands.
A week after my visit to Magic Jewelry, I'm on the phone with Stephany Hurkos, a personal manager in Studio City, California, who began studying auras in the 1960s. She gives me another reading, looking at a copy of my aura photo I sent to her email.
"You're very creative — and funny! You could be a comedian," she says, and I withhold the urge to interrupt the reading and tell her I just finished a sketch writing class.
And then: “You worry. You worry a lot. You worry what other people say,” an observation that hits a little deeper.
She explains that each color means something different, and that the colors on the left side of the photo (my ride side) represent what’s happened in the past, while the colors on the photo’s right represent my future. My dominant color is red, she says, which symbolizes passion, hard work, and sometimes, a short fuse.
Many of the people who practice aura photography cite Guy Coggins as the man who started it all in the early 1970s when he created a camera he claimed could capture a person’s aura, or the electromagnetic field that surrounds our bodies. I call Coggins to ask how he feels about the recent interest in his work.
“It’s interesting, it peaks and wanes, I think,” he says. “Maybe it has to do with people’s mentalities and all the bad things that are going on in the world? This is a positive, optimistic thing to think about.”
“I would say when I first started this, hardly anybody knew what the word aura meant,” he adds. “Now it’s very common, it's part of our vocabulary."
That might be why on weekends, Magic Jewelry is packed with tourists and locals alike eager to learn more about their auras. In fact, I might take my mom there the next time she's in town. Regardless of what the blur of colors really captures — my aura or otherwise — the experience alone is well worth the $20 I spent for the picture.