Let me start by saying that I've been thinking a lot about energy lately. The intangible, powerful kind that's beyond the visible scope.
For the past six months, I've been working with astrologer Susan Miller on her in-book and digital columns for InStyle and because of that I've been way more aware of moon cycles and rising signs than I ever was. (I say things now like "Oh you're a Cancer? That totally makes sense because you love being at home.") I never used to say those things. I'm also editing a feature for an upcoming issue that has to do with crystal healing. So I'm in deep on both astrology and crystals and energy in general, so when I was told about the fact that a visual artist who uses aura photography was going to be setting up a residence in the lobby of The Whitney as part of their Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 exhibit, I had to check it out.
Radiant Human is Portland-based artist Christina Lonsdale's traveling aura photography project. Using a specialized, hand-built camera from the '70s — a sort of tricked-out polaroid machine that connects to two silver-plated boxes that conduct your energy as you pose — Lonsdale is able to create a portrait of her subjects with their respective auras floating around them. She then "reads" the resulting aura based on the colors and their positioning. For the past three years Lonsdale's been traveling the country with her dome and has taken over 15,000 aura photos, amassing 29,000 Instagram followers as she's gone. (Instagram is generally where she announces which city she's headed to next.) Companies like GOOP have arranged for Lonsdale to come in and photograph the entire staff. Lonsdale even met her ex-boyfriend when he came in for a portrait session.
When I enter the dome at Lonsdale's Whitney setup, she offers me a stool in front of her camera and sits down cross-legged on the floor. Inside the tent, you can actually forget that you're in a giant art museum in a giant city. "I'm connected to creating an experience," she says. "This dome is my little spaceship that's a consistent experience no matter where I am, whether I'm in a field in the middle of nowhere or if I'm in the Whitney lobby."
She hands me the two conductors, each with a silver hand-shaped plate on top, indicating where to position your fingers. The plates pick up a vibrational frequency and, through an algorithm, match the frequency to a color. (Color has a vibrational frequency based on how light hits the spectrum, Lonsdale says.) Like an old timey-photo, you must hold your pose for over ten seconds, which is the reason, she says, that many people don't smile. (I somewhat smirk and even that's hard to hold without starting to twitch.) The camera takes a first exposure of your physical self and a second of your energetic overlay.
My photo comes out with a big purple cloud on top, an orangey-red haze near the bottom right, and a light burst of blue near the bottom left. "I'm not surprised by this at all," Lonsdale says, as she pulls back the film to reveal my finished photo. "Purple is very concept-oriented. Writers have a lot of purple. Purple is linked to dreams and magic and the third eye. When you have a lot of purple, that means you're a dreamer. It makes it difficult to have a normal job! The bottom right is your outgoing area and that's where it's red and orange — that's about being independent, adaptable, and a good problem solver — wearing many hats. Red is being grounded, tangible, and down to earth. So for you it's important to have tangible expressions of your creativity." It makes total sense to me: Writing, editing, and concepting stories for a magazine and website is a very tangible form of expression. The bottom blue she points to and says "this is how you are as a mother — nurturing and devoted." An upcoming trip away from my three year old has been on my mind, so when she points out the blue I find myself, like others before me, trying to hold it together and not cry.
Countless people have burst into tears upon hearing the analysis of their auras, she says — but they're tears of recognition and relief more than happiness or sadness: "You can negotiate a smile on your face, but you can't negotiate the energy you're giving off. And that's when it starts getting interesting because I have no idea what's happening in people's lives. I have no context."
I ask Lonsdale if she takes aura selfies. "Of course," she says. "For me, it's essentially a visual diary. I photograph my aura at key moments in my life, like when my Grandmother died or today, my first day at the Whitney. This is a way to capture a moment — but an energetic moment instead of a physical moment." She says a person's aura can change and shift based on the person and the circumstance—while in some cases people photographed months apart show big swings, other times they're relatively consistent. (Apparently a hangover and depression create a very similar aura.)
Leaving the dome feels like walking out of a therapy session. I feel seen. Achieving a level of intimacy with a stranger so quickly is kind of wonderful and heavy. Lonsdale says she loves human connection part of her work as much as the art. "Having stranger-to-stranger conversations about perception—when do we ever get to do that? This is my attempt to create a tangible, real experience. Art has a great way of doing that, being able to identify where we fit in within a lot of gray areas."