In 1917 sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her ten-year-old cousin Frances Griffths took a remarkable series of photographs. The girls produced two photographs that showed them posing with fairies. To the modern eye the photographs are clearly fakes. And in fairness, they were met with considerable skepticism at the time of their publication but they gained enough support from public authorities to keep them in the social commentary for more than 50 years. (Elsie and Frances didn't admit they faked the photographs until an interview in 1983. Prior to this interview, they had maintained the the photographs were real. Following their admission both maintained that they DID see fairies, though the photos were staged.) We know that fairies do not exist. We knew this in 1917. Why was it possible to entertain a dialogue to the contrary for so long despite that knowledge?

When Edward Gardner received the photographs in 1920, he was cautiously optimistic. He had received the photographs from a friend in the Theosophical Society, who in turn had received them from Elsie’s mother who had attended a lecture where fairies were discussed. She had wondered if the photographs might contain a truth. Gardner may have also wanted them to be true given his interests, but for whatever reason, chose to have them evaluated. One account reports that he initially thought they looked like studio fakes or prints from doctored plates, so he asked for the negatives. Careful review of the negatives was inconclusive: though the first bore no signs of tampering and the second was under-exposed. 

Gardner took the photographs and the negatives to another photographer, Harold Snelling. He did not find any immediate signs of fakery but he phrased his response carefully: "These two negatives are entirely genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures etc. In my opinion, they are both straight untouched pictures.” His statement does not exclude the possibility that these are photographs of photographs. Nor does it exclude “studio work” (techniques) using photographs originally made outside. He leaves the option of a photo-montage on the table. 

This is where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle enters the picture. The author of the most rational character in literature was himself quite interested in spiritualism. And he was intrigued by these photos, which he felt could offer proof to support his beliefs. He contacted Gardner and together they went to Kodak, who offered the following:

  1. The negatives were single exposure shots. 

  2. As such, they did not show signs of being faked.

  3. The photos could have been made by photographing the girls, painting the fairies onto the prints, and then re-photographing the prints in suitable lighting.

Kodak would not issue a certificate of genuineness because the possibility existed that someone may have devised a yet unknown means to fake the photos. And, according the one of the Kodak experts, fairies did not exist--so the whole exercise was ludicrous.

Not to be deterred, Gardner and Doyle set out to reproduce the girls' efforts. Funded in part by Doyle, Gardner visited Elsie in Cottingley. His assessment after meeting her was that her disposition did not seem like one that would have sought attention or notoriety or money. He surveyed the glen where the photographs were taken and found no evidence of stray papers (or fairies) that could have been used in the construct of the images. (He was unbothered by the three year lapse from the time when the photos had been taken to his visit.)  When Frances returned to the Wrights later that summer, he equipped the girls with a camera and asked them to produce additional photographs. He took his leave as the girls advised the fairies would not show themselves to people they were unfamiliar with and he did not want to hamper the process. The girls prevailed with three additional pictures. Gardner's response to this was to introduce a clairvoyant, who validated everything the girls said and who claimed to also see the fairies that occupied the girls' attention.

Gardner theorized that the girls possessed mediumistic qualities and materialized the fairies via their belief, which is why they were not visible to others. Doyle went to press and produced at least three written articles arguing in support of the mythical creatures using Cottingley as proof. These pieces were met with ridicule by the wider public, but there were people who wanted to believe who seized on this announcement and carried it forth.

Gardner was predisposed to believe Elsie and Frances as is evidenced by his membership in the Theosophical Society. Doyle was looking for a reason to believe in something beyond the material world. He has lost his brother and son during WWI. Within this context of grief, we can understand his desire for Victorian science to be more flexible than it presented itself. This is made plain throughout his book, The Coming of Fairies:

If we could conceive a race of beings which were constructed in material which threw out shorter or longer vibrations, they would be invisible unless we could tune ourselves up or tone them down. It is exactly that power of tuning up and adapting itself to other vibrations which constitutes a clairvoyant, and there is nothing scientifically impossible, so far as I can see, in some people seeing that which is invisible to others. 

And then:

Victorian science would have left the world hard and clean and bare, like a landscape in the moon ; but this science is in truth but a little light in the darkness, and outside that limited circle of definite knowledge we see the loom and shadow of gigantic and fantastic possibilities around us, throwing themselves continually across our consciousness in such ways that it is difficult to ignore them.

But these perspectives forced a blindness to key aspects of the "case." First, while the experts consulted maintained that the negatives and photographs had not been tampered with, they did not rule out the possibility that the photographs were otherwise faked. Second, both Gardner and Doyle inferred from the feedback they received that any fakery would have required technical skill beyond that possessed by Elsie or Frances. This blatantly ignores that (1) Elsie worked at a photographer's studio could have been taught the skill of re-touching or had access to someone else who could have done it, (2) she was a talented artist who often painted and drew woodland creatures, and (3) the fairies themselves resembled known artwork and prints of the day. When pictures of the the fairies were shown to a Fine Arts professor, she dated their costumes to 1919-1920 by drawing on specific examples from the time period. It was later discovered that the fairies were based on figures from Princess Mary's Gift Book published in 1915.

Doyle maintained that children are predisposed to see fairies because they present less of a threat to the creatures, and they are more attuned to the “vibration” mentioned above where the fairies may be seen. Many studies demonstrate that by about the age of six, children begin to deny the possibility of many impossible events, such as floating in the air, walking through a wall, moving a marble with one’s mind or handing on a tree branch forever. This shift occurs even as they may continue to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and other supernatural beings whose existence hinges upon them doing impossible things. These childhood legends aside, children begin the process of differentiating the impossible from the improbable. Prior to that children deny the possibility of impossible events as well as improbable ones (e.g., calling a dog a wug) due to experience. While adults rely on identifying facts about the world that would prevent an event from occurring, children look to identify circumstances that would allow an event to occur. In this thread, social rules become immutable—there are no reasons a child could offer as to why a dog might be a wug.

This is important because we learn so much about the world from others. We’re able to use the testimony from others to learn about people, places, and objects that we have not personally encountered. This is particularly true for children who build a library of “truths” to draw upon. When they encounter something that isn’t mapped in this library, they draw upon their knowledge of causal processes and causal constraints to assess the situation. Children who deny improbable events may simply have not yet encountered enough relevant information to decide otherwise, which is why the testimony of an adult about the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny may be sufficient to sustain the belief for a few additional years.

This process doesn't stop for adults. Our knowledge and experience base is wider, but adults are still active in the social learning process. Photos are a tool to this end. A picture is worth is thousand words because of what it offers: In a single image, a photograph can confirm or refute the events assigned to a moment in time. A photo is absolute. Except a photo is a curated experience. With today’s technology, it can be altered in such a way that it is drastically different from the scene it portrays. It can be cropped, rotated, color corrected, and filtered to change its focus or its season or its decade. As we now know this was also true in the early days of the technology. Photographers were skilled at manipulating the negative itself. They would scrape, draw, or paint on the negatives, or combine multiple negatives to generate the desired print. This practice of re-touching was common with portraits. With regard to actual photo manipulation such as spirit photography, the double exposure of the print allowed the image of a second individual to be imposed on the photograph in a way that suggested a supernatural presence. 

Photographs aid in supplementing the library. However by the time the Cottingley photographs were were revealed, photo manipulation techniques were well established. The adults who viewed these items had every reason to doubt them, but as Doyle suggested, those adults who were willing to believe saw their belief as a protest against the sterile, “hard” and “cold” science. It was a rebellion against the norm. The Cottingley photographs show us how technology can be manipulated to sustain a belief against the mounting evidence to the contrary. The photographs provided the tangible means of transmission for an idea—similar in many ways to the information that is passed on our social networks today. 

The Cottingley photographs also reveal a bias in our understanding of who can use technology. In this instance, it was believed that Elsie didn’t possess the skill or knowledge to manipulate the photos—in truth, she architected the event. Similarly as demonstrated by the Cambridge Analytica events and the rise of propaganda-oriented social accounts, the public grossly underestimated who is in charge of what they are seeing online. Again, in both instances, a willingness to turn a blind eye to evidence to the contrary prevailed because the experiences served a purpose. They weren’t completely eradicated because they weren’t viewed as harmful; as long as the majority understood it was fake, the harm was contained to the reputations of those who championed the idea.

The combination of the manipulation of technology and the bias of the audience create fertile ground for maintaining a false belief, particularly when there are physical artifacts to maintain a proof. It allows fervent supporters a means of countering skeptics for as long as they desire to hold onto their belief.

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Birch, Susan A. J., and Paul Bloom. "The Curse of Knowledge in Reasoning about False Beliefs." Psychological Science 18, no. 5 (2007): 382-86.

Hahn, Robert A. "Understanding Beliefs: An Essay on the Methodology of the Statement and Analysis of Belief Systems." Current Anthropology 14, no. 3 (1973): 207-29.

Rosengren, Karl S., and Anne K. Hickling. "Seeing Is Believing: Children's Explanations of Commonplace, Magical, and Extraordinary Transformations." Child Development 65, no. 6 (1994): 1605-626. doi:10.2307/1131283.

Andrew Shtulman, and Susan Carey. "Improbable or Impossible? How Children Reason about the Possibility of Extraordinary Events." Child Development 78, no. 3 (2007): 1015-032.


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