On November 3rd 1975, David Bowie – in the final stages of recording his legendary album Station to Station – took possession of a strange device. Bowie was at this time heavily into the occult; the artwork of Station to Station would feature an image of him sketching the Kabbalistic Tree of Life on the floor (I discussed Bowie’s esoteric interests in “Occult Rock: The Influence of Magick on Modern Music“), so this was no doubt a welcome gift.
The device, given to Bowie by Dr. Thelma Moss at the Dept. of Parapsychology at UCLA, was a Kirlian Photograph Machine. It was based on technology developed over the past 75 years by Czech and Russian researchers that had not become popular in the West until the 1970s: the creation of images by placing objects on sheet photographic film sitting atop a metal discharge plate. When a high voltage was quickly applied to the object, it would create an exposure on the film via electrical coronal discharge.
Many in the New Age community, especially those into alternative health and bio-energy fields, believed that Kirlian photography was imaging the ‘aura’ of objects, and might be useful for diagnosing illnesses or other pathologies of the body energy (and/or soul). And Bowie wasn’t the only rock icon to become enamoured with the technology: the cover of ex-Beatle George Harrison’s 1973 album Living in the Material World featured a Kirlian photograph of Harrison’s hand holding a Hindu medallion.
Bowie’s interest in Kirlian photography was evident: some of the photos that resulted from his experimentation with the technique were published in the programme for his 1976 tour in support of Station to Station. And he used it to try and understand what was happening to his body when he took drugs: he compared two Kirlian photographs of his fingertip (beside a crucifix given to him by his father), one image taken before consuming cocaine, the other after.
Bowie’s interest in Kirlian photography seems to have persisted beyond the 1970s though – the image of his fingertip was reproduced in the album booklet for his 1997 album Earthling, and as the cover art for the single “Little Wonder“. And if you’d like to hear it from the proverbial horse’s mouth, he discussed it in this short video around the same time: