Semyon Davidovich Kirlian was a Russian inventor and researcher of Armenian descent, who along with his wife Valentina Khrisanovna Kirlian, a teacher and journalist, discovered and developed Kirlian photography.
Kirlian was born in Yekaterinodar, now Krasnodar, Russia of Armenian descent. He possessed an early interest in, and aptitude for, work with electricity. Just before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Kirlian attended a conference in his home city at which Nikola Tesla gave talks and demonstrations; Tesla was one of Kirlian‘s predecessors in the field of corona discharge photography. In the 1930s Kirlian earned his living as an electrician in Krasnodar, near the eastern coast of the Black Sea in southern Russia—then the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, part of the Soviet Union. He married Valentina Khrisanovna in 1930.
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By 1939 Kirlian had acquired a reputation as the best local resource for repairing electrical equipment, and was regularly called upon to fix the apparatus of scientists and laboratories in the area. In that year, he happened to witness a demonstration of a high-frequency d’Arsonval electrotherapy device. He noticed that there was a small flash of light between the machine’s electrodes and the patient’s skin, and wondered if he would be able to photograph it. (Kirlian was not the first person to witness this phenomenon, though the urge to photograph and investigate it seems to have been original with him.) Experimenting with similar equipment, he replaced glass electrodes with metal substitutes to take photographs in visible light; at the price of a severe electrical burn, he was able to take an unusual and striking photograph of an apparent energy discharge around his own hand.
Over the next ten years he and his wife developed and perfected apparatus for what we now call Kirlian photography. They employed a high-frequency oscillator or spark generator that operated at 75 to 200 kHz. They took photographs with no camera, merely with electric current and photographic film. The Kirlians then moved beyond static photography, to develop an optical filter that allowed them to witness the phenomenon in real time; they saw miniature fireworks displays of light and color playing around their hands.
Gradually the Kirlian‘ activity began to attract attention from professional scientists. Kirlian made controversial claims that the image he was studying might be compared with the human aura. An experiment advanced as evidence of energy fields generated by living entities involves taking Kirlian contact photographs of a picked leaf at set periods, its gradual withering being said to correspond with a decline in the strength of the aura. The Kirlians made many photographs of the leaves of various plants; by 1949, it was determined that Kirlian photography could detect incipient plant disease that was not otherwise detectable. In the same year, the Kirlians received a Soviet patent on their basic device, “a method of photographing by means of high-frequency currents.” Experimenting further upon themselves, the Kirlians acquired the first results showing that Kirlian photography could provide an index of a person’s physical health, and could illuminate the acupuncture points of the human body.
It was not until the early 1960s, however, that the Kirlian‘ efforts attracted widespread recognition and official support, once popular journalists wrote a series of newspaper and magazine articles about Kirlian photography. The Kirlians were awarded a pension and were provided with a pleasant new apartment and a well-equipped laboratory in Krasnodar. Their first scientific paper on Kirlian photography was published in 1961, in the (Russian) Journal of Scientific and Applied Photography. Scientific institutions around the Soviet Union were set to work on Kirlian photography in 1962. The first appearance in the US is unknown, but an educational film about Kirlian photography and energy emissions from living things was seen in a Southern California elementary school about 1964.