Carlo Van de Roer, “Miranda July”
Carlo Van de Roer, “Miranda July”

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Spirit photography goes back as far as photography itself, but historically the form has tended to take one step forward followed by two steps back. William H. Mumler discovered the visual power of the double-exposure in the 1860s, then passed himself off as a medium capable of capturing ghosts on film. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was so enamored of the mystic Crewe Circle and its founder, spirit photographer William Hope—who utilized pre-exposed glass plates to create images of ghosts—that the author wrote a book defending Hope against his adversaries. The Soviet inventor Semyon Davidovich Kirlian and his wife Valentina Khrisanovna managed to photograph an electrical effect known as a corona discharge in 1939, which would decades later open the way for “aural” photography: a new kind of spirit photography for a New Age kind of sucker.

After discovery comes quackery, but fortunately, at least in photography, after quackery comes art. Enter artist Carlo Van de Roer, who reclaims the advances of Kirlian photography from the parapsychology of aural photographer Guy Coggins. For “The Portrait Machine Project,” now on view at Randall Scott’s H Street NE gallery, Van de Roer employs the AuraCam 6000—essentially a souped-up Polaroid Land Camera that Coggins outfitted to interpret a subject’s bioelectric feedback. Van de Roer’s portraits are a testament to photography’s limitless capacity for pulling its past into its present.

Van de Roer administers his portraits the way that Coggins intended: Subjects hold a biofeedback sensor that measures the heat, sweat, and electromagnetic output from their palms. This data—or if you prefer, the person’s qi or prana or aura—is then rendered as a second, fuzzier photographic exposure. A portrait of artist Terence Koh depicts his aura as a field of an eschatological shade of green, whereas the aura of photographer Martynka Wawrzyniak reads like a mushroom cloud.

It’s up to the viewer to interpret what a person’s aura means (and it was the subject of some scholarly debate in the 1970s). Coggins, helpfully, built in a schema for reading auras, divided them into three arbitrary regions corresponding roughly to current mood, future vibes, and energy output. Van de Roer adopted the Coggins system for reading aural photography, so we know, for example, that the deep blue and violet hues in his portrait of artist and director Miranda July represent the highest vibrational frequency a person can omit. (The camera-generated readouts can be found alongside Van de Roer’s portraits in a book, The Portrait Machine Project, which is available at the gallery.)

Of course, the way that the viewer interprets Miranda July’s aura depends in large part on how the viewer responds to July herself. (I like to think of Miranda July as the original template from which her flawed-but-lovable clone, comedian Kristen Schaal, was imperfectly copied.) There are a lot of edgy cultural types in Van de Roer’s portrait series, including Koh, July, and Wawrzyniak (and, not on view, Richard Kern and James Frey, among others). Beyond endowing the project with social capital, the presence of so many famous art-world figures is Van de Roer’s way of signaling that this is principally a project about photography—even if figures who are notorious in their own right, such as Koh and July, are bound to inspire eye-rolls among in-the-know viewers. Some of these characters don’t need photo-mystic acupuncture to project a dubious aura.

As an overall project, Van de Roer’s principal achievement is technical. Coggins, to be sure, never got photographs like these out of the AuraCam 6000. The specialty rig both opens up Van de Roer’s investigation and severely curbs its potential, a restraint that he wrestles with. The surface of Van de Roer’s prints is rich enough to eat with a spoon, but the actual information a viewer can gather from the portraits—the clarity and detail provided for the figures—is limited. Nevertheless, Van de Roer coaxes pro prints from his gimmick camera. Up close, the two individual prints that make up a diptych portrait of Maris Bellack read as two different color fields: yellow (“Sunny, Exhilaration”) and green (“Healing, Teaching”). But viewed from a distance, the striking similarities outweigh the fuzzy differences.

Van de Roer hasn’t set out to falsify a bogus premise or expose a pseudoscientist. Instead, he gets that the subjective is the only realm that the camera ever captures. Ghosts or no ghosts, it all comes down to tactics. If anything, Van de Roer is elevating Coggins as an innovator, admitting him into a peer group for which aura photography is a valid advance.