It might be hard to imagine now but there was once a time when cameras were a new and novel invention and special effects were almost unheard of. Certainly it would be years (almost a century in fact) before CG would play a role in cinema. As for Photoshop; that was even further away. In those early years it was much harder to fake or alter photos so when an unbelievable picture surfaced, most people at least entertained the idea that the picture had to be real. That atmosphere of naiveté made it possible for photographers to pull all sorts of stunts and one of the greatest photography hoaxes of all time started in the small unassuming English village of Cottingley .
In 1917 during the midst of World War I two young cousins Frances Griffiths (10 years old) and Elsie Wright (13 years old) asked to borrow a camera from Elsie’s father (Arthur) so they could take a picture with the fairies they claimed to have been playing with all morning in the garden. An hour later they returned with the negative and when the plate was developed it did indeed show young Frances Griffiths posing among dancing fairies. Wright’s father immediately suspected it to be some kind of trick, though an amusing one, and put the photo aside without a second thought.
The girls took a second photo a month later that showed Elsie sitting next to a gnome. Again Arthur saw the photo as nothing more than a neat camera trick but his wife Polly Wright felt differently.
Polly had been attending lectures on the topic of the supernatural and believed there was a real possibility that her daughter and niece were communing with actual fairies. Through various connections she showed the photos to a professional photographer, Harold Snelling, who declared the pictures to be: “genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc.” At this point the photos started circulating in the spiritualist community and eventually came to the attention of none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a passionate spiritualist and believed these photos could be the first conclusive photographic proof of supernatural creatures. He encouraged the girls to take more photos, which they did in 1920, and immediately became an impassioned supporter and advocate for their legitimacy.
Of course even at the time these photos had their share of skeptics. Some experts believed the fairies looked a little too much like paper. Others pointed to inconsistencies such as the girls not looking directly at the fairies or one of the fairies not having any wings. There was also the question of why the fairies seemed to be wearing modern French fashion. Despite all of these issues many people chose to believe they were real. World War I was known as “the war to end all wars” and for good reason. Just like today people needed an outlet, something silly and fun to believe in. For some these photographs provided for that need.
In 1978 the photos were officially debunked by James Randi who found the fairies to be far too similar to images in Princess Mary’s Gift Book which was published just a few years before the pictures were taken.
Finally in 1981 Elsie Wright herself confessed that the fairies had in fact been paper cutouts all along. She claimed they were inspired by the images in Princess Mary’s Gift Book and had been held in place by hatpins.
It seems that if you’re looking for proof that fairies exist you’ll have to look elsewhere. Still, the fact that two little girls with no photography experience managed to fool the world for so long is inspirational in its own way. Better luck next time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!