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“Of all the pageantry of the atmosphere,” LIFE noted in a June 1953 issue, “the most awesome and, as man has often thought, most fearful, are the auroras—the ghostly streamers of colored light that appear on certain nights, usually in spring and fall, and spread upward from the horizon to the zenith, sometimes projected in shifting rays like searchlight beams, sometimes diffused in shimmering veils and curtains, sometimes dancing and pulsating like the flames of some unutterable cosmic fire.”
Here, six decades later, LIFE.com pays homage to those “ghostly streamers” with a series of pictures made by J.R. Eyerman (called “Jay Eyerman” in that long-ago issue of the magazine) in northern Canada. In fact, Eyerman—who entered the University of Washington when he was 15 to study engineering—made these photos using a technique he himself devised.
In the 1957 book, LIFE Photographers: Their Careers and Favorite Pictures, author Stanley Rayfield notes that “Eyerman’s technical innovations have helped push back the frontiers of photography. He perfected an electric eye mechanism to trip the shutters of nine cameras to make pictures of an atomic blast; devised a special camera for taking pictures 3600 feet beneath the surface of the ocean; successfully ‘speeded up’ color film to make previously impossible color pictures of the shimmering, changing forms and patterns of the aurora borealis.”
The results, both technically and aesthetically, are glorious.
(Note: We’ve included a few of Eyerman’s black and white shots of the northern lights in this gallery, as we feel there’s something starkly beautiful about those pictures, too.)
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.