Photographing Fairies


Dr Alice Sage, Goldsmiths, University of London

This blogpost explains Alice Sage’s winning Pamela Cox Public History Prize project. You can read the announcement and watch an interview between the SHS and Alice here.

This exhibition and engagement project was inspired by the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Cottingley Fairy Photographs in December 1920. This infamous hoax by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths produced the original viral selfies — photos of fairies which convinced many people, including Arthur Conan Doyle, of the existence of supernatural life, but also sparked fierce debate about the agency and ability of girls.

I mention the Cottingley photos in my PhD thesis — Fairies, Fathers and Fantasies of Childhood in London 1915–30 — but felt there was potential to create a public history project around them; so I developed an exhibition proposal as a placement funded by CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership.

As well as marking the history of the photographs, I wanted to introduce a contemporary point of view. What would girls the same age as Frances Griffiths think about these photographs now? Would the selfie generation be fooled by hundred year old fake news?

Fairies Photographed, The Strand Magazine, Dec 1920. Image © Science Museum

Making the most of the connections with Doyle, the exhibition was initially planned for Edinburgh’s Writers Museum, and would survey fairies in literature, in collaboration with Sarah Dunnigan of SELCIE (Scotland’s Early Literature for Children Initiative), University of Edinburgh. By early 2020, I had visited Bradford to see the original photographs and cameras I hoped to borrow, and was working on the Edinburgh book archives with SELCIE volunteers.

Then coronavirus hit. The museums closed, project partners were furloughed and we all had to focus on getting though that first lockdown. I also had to finish my thesis. I kept doing image research and writing text for the exhibition, but after a while, it became clear that the exhibition would not go ahead as planned. The Writers Museum was closed indefinitely. Over the summer, I worked with Stills Centre for Photography to re-shape the project, focussing on creating new work, leading to an online exhibition. It was exciting to shift the context from historic literature to contemporary photography, and gave the project new energy.

The box of art materials hand-delivered to each participant

In October 2020, we started workshops with two groups of young people who meet regularly through Edinburgh Young Carers and Edinburgh Multi-cultural Family Base. We spent a couple of hours a week together on zoom, experimenting with image-making and image-faking under the guidance of the artist Morwenna Kearsley. In 1917, Elsie Wright used scissors and glue to create fairies that convinced even Arthur Conan Doyle, so that’s where we started. With a box of art materials each, the groups made collages, did collaborative drawings, and staged fake photographs. Morwenna and the young artists overcame many challenges of working in lockdown — technical glitches, dodgy sound, tiny phone screens etc — to create interesting and beautiful works.

A zoom workshop

The final online exhibition brings together historic photography, new images made by the group, alongside work by artists and photographers who have engaged with the legacy of the Cottingley photographs. Morwenna Kearsey’s own contemporary spirit photograph, Belljar (2020), features in the exhibition, as does In A Shaded Place by Wendy McMurdo (1996), two works that play with themes of manipulation, visitation, and virtuosity. Legendary comics artist Frank Quitely shared original drawings from a Cottingley short story he illustrated in 1996, which inspired some of the group to write comics of their own supernatural encounters. A booklet accompanying the exhibition includes more images from the project, with curator’s essays and reflections on ‘The Ever-Changing Persistence of Fairies’ by Sarah Dunnigan. This also provides a tangible, lasting record of the project.

At the outset of the Photographing Fairies project, the most relevant thing about the Cottingley Fairy Photographs was their fake-ness. In 1920, Doyle expected a ‘cry of fake’ to meet the pictures, but by 2019, this cry was a standard part of public discourse. Over 2020, I was forced to rethink photographs, digital images and our relationship to them. We were relying social media for social contact, battling the glitchy pain of self-representation. The original Cottingley Fairy Photographs were a creative response to the crisis of warfare, and making fantasy images provided a way to think through our own crisis a century later.

One of my favourite works in the exhibition is The Vampire’s Cave. This self-portrait, made by 12-year-old Jayda Browne, responds to the Cottingley photographs with a much darker vision. The mouth of a cave threatens with fangs of rock; in front, a smartly dressed girl seems unconcerned as she strokes her long hair. Beside her, an upright mirror reflects with a glassy emptiness. The truth dawns on us — the girl is the vampire!

The Vampire’s Cave. Jayda Browne (2020)

Browne’s fantasy space turns away from the sparkle of fairies to the gothic glamour of vampires, and she has given herself the lead role in the supernatural encounter. Born a century after Frances Griffiths, and a year after Steve Jobs revealed the first iPhone, Browne has grown up in a photoshopped world of digital images and never known a time before Facebook. Christened the ‘zoomers’, so much of her generation’s experience is mediated on screen and performed for the webcam. Nearly 10% of her whole life has been spent in some form of lockdown. No surprise then that Browne chose an empty mirror, with the black frame and proportions of a smartphone, to signify her status as undead.

The whole Photographing Fairies project lasted 6 months longer than planned, and has been fraught with difficulties and disappointments; however, a global pandemic has the magical effect of showing what is important. Rather than forcing a particular outcome, Photographing Fairies became a project where people had the opportunity to enjoy themselves in tough times, and creative work could be sustaining rather than draining. The final exhibition achieves what I hoped for, by introducing girls’ voices into the Cottingley story.


About the author: Alice Sage is a cultural historian, living in the Scottish Borders, who has recently completed a PhD at Goldsmiths, investigating fantasies of childhood in the aftermath of the First World War.

The Photographing Fairies project was supported by the Ragdoll Foundation and the CHASE Feminist Network. It was a collaborative project with life-giving contributions from:

  • Edinburgh Young Carers
  • Multicultural Family Base
  • Morwenna Kearsley
  • Claire Cochrane and Emma Black, Stills Centre for Photography
  • Lyn Stevens, Edinburgh Museums
  • Sarah Dunnigan and SELCIE

See the exhibition at until 19 August 2021.

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