While the story of the Cottingley Fairies occurred in the 1920s after the close of the Victorian era, I think it is interesting and relevant to the role of photography in the portrayal of real versus imaginary. In 1917, two young cousins in England, Elise Wright and Frances Griffith, borrowed Elise’s father’s camera and told him that they were going to take pictures of the fairies in their garden. Once these photographs had been developed, Elise’s mother Polly Wright, who was a spiritualist, believed the girls’ story that the fairies were indeed real and took them to a lecture she attended on spiritualism. After showing them to the speaker, a professional photographer, Harold Snelling, declared that the fairies in the photographs were real. Even more interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle used these photographs to show the public that fairies existed. Even after many individuals pointed out that the fairies in the photographs looked like pieces of paper, a large number of people still believed the photographs were real. Only in 1981 did Elise Wright confess that the fairies in the photographs were in fact paper cutouts based on the fairies from a children’s book called Princess Mary’s Gift Book. Elise said that she had sketched the fairies from the book, made paper cutouts, and held them up in the photographs with hairpins. Because individuals like Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to believe in fairies, they used these photographs to explain their existence. It is interesting that even though it was known that photographic techniques had advanced to the stage where photographs did not always portray reality, people were still misled by these photographs.
Here are the five photographs that Elise and Frances took: