Cottingley fairies (Elsie Wright + Frances Griffiths)

Beginning in 1917, two English girls, Elsie Wright (1901-88) and Frances Griffiths (1907-86), made a series of five photographs that purported to show them with real fairies. Although suspected as fakes from the outset, the controversy over their status continued for decades.

Cottingley fairy photo

The girls began by taking photos in the beck behind Elsie's house in Cottingley, using her father's camera. Their first photo (at right, the most famous of the series) shows Frances in the background and a group of fairies in the foreground. At the time, sixteen-year-old Elsie was already a trained watercolorist and photographer with experience constructing composite photographs showing dead soldiers with their family and friends. However, compositing techniques were not used for the Cottingley fairy photos. As the cousins confessed many decades later, the "fairies" were actually simple cut-outs placed in front of the lens while the photographs were being exposed.

These images are usually cited as part of the history of photo-fakery, which began quite early in the medium's development. Indeed, Elsie's father, an engineer, thought they were fakes as soon as he saw them and banned Elsie from using his camera anymore. However, Elsie's mother was convinced the photos were real and brought the matter up at a Theosophical society meeting in 1919 during a lecture on fairy life. As a result, a Theosophist named Edward Gardner saw the photos in 1920 and thought they were genuine. Hoping that more photos would settle the matter for good, Gardner gave the girls a camera and a couple dozen photographic plates, and they ultimately made three more fairy photos in the late summer of 1920.

Meanwhile, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle heard about the matter and borrowed prints of the first two photos from Gardner for an essay he was writing for the Strand magazine. Conan Doyle believed the photos were genuine, although various individuals he showed them to thought they were fake. The Strand issue with the fairy photos sold out in November 1920 and unleashed a flood of comment from critics convinced the images were fakes.  Nonetheless, Conan Doyle published a follow-up article in the Strand in 1921 accompanied by the final three fairy photos, and Gardner published a book on the subject the following year.

Public interest in the subject then died down somewhat but continued to flare up intermittently. For most of their lives, the cousins either maintained that the photos were real or dodged questions attempting to pin them down.  Finally, in a 1981 interview, Else and Frances stated unequivocally that four of the five mages were fakes. However, Frances also said that she had indeed seen fairies at the time and that the fifth photograph (below) was genuine.

Cottingley fairy photo

The Cottingley fairy photos can be considered a precursor of fictive art because of the girls' deliberate use of photography's evidentiary status to support their fictional account of encounters with fairies. Most young girls, then as now, would have limited themselves to telling or writing stories about fairies, perhaps with supporting drawings; that is, they would not have ventured beyond media understood by adults as fictional or nonevidentiary, even if they had insisted (as children often do) that their story was wholly true.

The cousins are also remarkable for the lengths to which they went in standing by their photos. In 1918, Frances wrote in a letter to a friend "I am sending two photos, both of me, one of me in a bathing costume in our back yard, Uncle Arthur took that, while the other is me with some fairies up the beck, Elsie took that one.... Elsie and I are very friendly with the beck Fairies." On the back of the fairy photo itself, Frances wrote, "It is funny I never used to see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there." In other words, Frances created secondary documents (the letter and the inscription on the photograph) intended to support the veracity of the primary documents (the fairy photographs). This move succeeded quite well: when the letter was made public in 1922, it was taken by some outside commentators as independent evidence that the fairy photos must be genuine, for why would an eleven-year-old girl lie to a friend in an ordinary letter?

One wonders whether the cousins maintained their story for so long largely because of stigma associated with the 'fake' term of the genuine/fake dichotomy; or because one (or both) of them actually believed in fairies, making the photos a form of wish fulfillment; or because they, unlike most of their critics, actually understood the fictive nature of their project and never really intended for the photos to be taken as real. Some evidence for this latter possibility exists in a 1971 BBC documentary in which Elsie, on being asked if the fairy photos are "trick" images, responds: "I'd rather leave that open if you don't mind." This is a wholly unsatisfactory reply for a typical faker to make; in the world of fakes, there is no tenable position intermediate between the assertion of genuineness and the admission of fakery. What can it mean to say "I'd rather leave that open?" If it is not a veiled admission, then it must be taken as a pointer towards a third position: one in which fakery is not the major issue for the photos' creators, but rather the imaginary construct revealed by the synthetic photos.

Sources:; Wikipedia article on the Cottingley fairies.