Do You Believe In Faeries?

fairyphoto1If you are familiar with the history of photography or an Arthur Conan Doyleaficionado, you might recognise this photograph. It is one of the five Cottingley Faeries photographs.

In the early 19th century, photography was regarded as an instrument of truth. The camera couldn't lie. When Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths took the first two Cottingley photographs in 1917, their photographs were taken as proof that faeries existed. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a noted Spiritualist, approached the girls a few years later, gave them a new camera and asked them to take more photos of the faeries. The girls obliged.

Nowadays it is difficult to understand how anybody could be hoodwinked by the photographs. The faeries look like cut-outs and the lighting is noticably "off". Quite apart from the Arthur Conan Doyle connection (and the inevitable "How could the creator of the world's most famous detective be fooled by this?!" question), these photos were arguably some of the first to trouble photography's truth claim.

Elsie and Frances denied faking the faeries for most of their lives, but eventually owed up in the 1980s when both were dying. I was reminded of the Cottingley photographs when I was watching BBC's Antique Roadshow this past Sunday. Frances' daughter and grand-daughter showed up with the original photographs and the camera which Conan Doyle had given the girls. What struck me was not so much the estimated value of the photographs and the camera, but rather how the Cottingley incident had impacted an entire family. Frances' daughter, now an elderly lady, visibly struggled to admit her mother had deceived an entire world. When asked, both the daughter and grand-daughter maintained the fifth and final photograph was genuine - but the grand-daughter looked as though she was protecting her own mother from an unbearable truth.

Photography has changed so much since two girls went down to the bottom of their garden and found faeries. Ellie pointed me towards a series of images from Google Earth which are staggeringly beautiful (particularly the one with the elephants). Make sure to explore the linked images to Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Everest.