Cottingley Faries

A reflection on authenticity in photography

Elsie Wright was a 16-year-old English girl and lived with her parents in the small village of Cottingley, in the suburbs of Bradford, in central England. It was in 1917 that the first photos appeared. It was as soon as her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths arrived from South Africa and moved in with the Wright family.

The two used to play around the house where there was a small stream. They often came back with dirty and wet clothes. As a justification with Elsie’s mother, they said that they had been playing with fairies that appeared in that enchanted place. Who would stop playing with real fairies just to not get a little dirty? It was a good excuse.

They boasted that they knew how to call such fairies and other creatures that inhabited the woods – elves and gnomes. They said that they were now friends and that it would be useless for anyone else to try to find them because they would only appear to them. Not being taken seriously by the adults, they decided to prove what they said. Elsie’s father worked for an electricity company. Far from being someone rich, he already earned enough to play with the recent popularization of photography and took his weekend snapshots with a Midg, manufactured by Butcher. Elsie insisted that he should lend her the camera, promising that she would return with a photo of a fairy.

Actual camera used by Elsie and Frances
Science Museum – London

The Midg can be loaded with twelve 3 ½ x 4 ½ “glass plates, approximately 82 x 102 mm. However, suspicious, Elsie’s father carried only one plate, showed how to take a snapshot and handed the camera over to the girls It was a Saturday afternoon. The two disappeared and in less than an hour they came back insisting with Mr. Wright to develop the negative, so it was done and from inside the darkroom, seeing the action of the developer on the emulsion, in that magical moment when the image appears, Elsie shouted to her cousin who had been outside: “Oh, Frances, Frances, the fairies are on the plate — they are on the plate! “

First picture with Frances Griffiths

If Elsie’s father was impressed, it was more with his daughter’s technical prowess, on his first attempt. But he considered that everything was just a continuation of the game and soon imagined that the “fairies” would be figures cut out of cardboard and placed on the scene by the two girls. He did not worry too much about how it was done, nor did he consider the hypothesis that it would really be the authentic snapshot of fairies dancing in front of his niece, who very calmly looked at the camera, as if ignoring the supernatural event she witnessed. Two months later he lent his Midg again to his daughter and a new photo showed Elsie sitting on the grass and playing with a winged gnome.

Page published in Strand Magazine with the second photo
Iris was Elsie’s fictitious name for the publication

Elsie’s mother was less skeptical or more imaginative. Two years later, Ms. Polly Wright, at the end of a lecture on how fairies live, at the Bradford Theosophy Society, showed the speaker two pictures. The welcome this time came with all seriousness and the photos were exposed at the annual Theosophy conference that would take place a few months later.

Theosophy can be seen as another typical manifestation of thought at the turn of the 20th century and which resulted in thinking that nothing would be what it appeared to be. There would be an explanation for everything beyond the trivial. Starting with science, it was the beginning of Modern Physics with the discontinuity of matter and the Theory of Relativity. Sigmund Freud had shown that our motivations come from the subconscious and are often very different from what we believe or say they are. Charles Darwin showed that species are transformed and are not independent and perennial creations. Karl Marx came up with the theory that economic motivations are the ones that govern the dynamics of societies. In the arts, value started to come from form and not from content with the arrival of abstraction. Anyway, it was the ideal environment to doubt everything and to imagine great hidden universal laws, parallel worlds, mental phenomena, beings that would live in other dimensions and things like that. Theosophy borrowed evolutionary, scientific, speculative and philosophical approaches to investigating spiritual experiences and all kinds of mysticism.

Cottingley’s photographs were soon seen as a bridge between the tangible world and an alleged intangible. Being photography, there was an exemption from an instrument with something scientific to record, without human interference, what had been in front of the camera. Being fairies, it would be proof that other intelligent beings besides us, often reported but never registered, would inhabit our planet or our dimension. All right to the taste of the theosophical researcher. That is why the two photos caught the attention of one of the leaders of the movement in England, Edward Gardner and another great spiritualist, the already famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, doctor and writer, creator of Sherlock Holmes. The two campaigned for the acceptance of the photos as evidence of their theories and worldviews.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a small book called The coming of the fairies, in which he gives details of the case of the Cottingley girls and his correspondence with Edward Gardner during the investigation. It talks about what the experts consulted said, about the main criticisms on images authenticity and ends with a series of reports of other cases related to similar experiences, of other people and their contacts with fairies and the like.

The book begins by establishing that its aim is not to convince or prove anything, but rather to report the facts and leave the reader to his own conclusion. Obviously, the skeptics’ stance was that it was a fake, photographic retouching, studio montage, manipulation with two negatives or something of that kind.

Doyle begins his argument using a fact that was relatively new in physics: “We see objects within the limits which make up our colour spectrum, with infinite vibrations, unused by us, on either side of them. 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”.

For the fairy world and its vibrations we would then be a kind of receptors regulated for vibrations other than theirs. The possibility of perceiving this hidden world would open as soon as some of us could “tune” the vibrations correctly or cause them to enter our perceptual field for some unknown method. This would evidently be the case for girls. The basis of the argument is the gap between a concept of “existence” and “perception of that existence”. It is as old as philosophy. Perception is the only evidence we have of existence and this opens up an immense valley of doubts about the independence and reality of this “existence” that only manifests itself subjectively in “perception”.

Doyle used the then recent discovery of the extent of the electromagnetic spectrum of waves, of which visible light is only a small part, to say that fairies exist, they simply demand a special type of perception and registration, which we normally do not have. For some unknown phenomenon, those fairies “descended” into our visual field and were seen and photographed.

This special gift is not given to any human being. A few are capable and among them children are much more apt than adults. There is a recurring idea, present in many fantastic stories, that the process of maturing towards adulthood means the loss of a certain enchantment or powers that can only occur in childhood. This is clearly taken for granted by Doyle. When he comments on Edward Gardner’s intention to go to Cottingley again, three years after the first photos, we see that he doubted the endeavor because of this loss of spiritual powers with growth. “In my heart I hardly expected success, for three years had passed, and I was well aware that the processes of puberty are often fatal to psychic power”.

In addition to this supernatural aspect being more developed in children, it was also part of the argument that their ingenuity and lack of training in photography could not have produced such convincing photos as fakes. Many photographers and experts have argued, to discredit the whole story, that everyone had seen similar and known fake photos before. To this Doyle responded: “The fallacy of this reasoning lay in the fact that these imitations were done by skilled performers, while the originals were by untrained children”.

Gardner also went in the same direction of argument. More than the material evidence itself, what weighed were the unsuspected conditions in which the photos were taken. “I need hardly point out that the strength of the case lies in its amazing simplicity and the integrity of the family concerned”. The Wright family was humble, lived in a village, not in any big city, the protagonists were children, the camera was just a Midg and all this made up the ideal case in the imaginary of the phenomena that occupied the Theosophists.

Around this idyllic scenario, to complete, there were called theories that “explained” the observations better. Elves would be composed partly human partly butterflies, gnomes would come from moths and fairies evolved from flying insects. Even more elaborate is the argument of Doyle, who was a doctor, that “To the objections of photographers that the fairy figures show quite different shadows to those of the human our answer is that ectoplasm, as the etheric protoplasm has been named, has a faint luminosity of its own, which would largely modify shadows “.

More robust, although inconclusive, was another Doyle’s argument to which no logician could object: The fact that false images of fairies can be produced does not imply that every image of a fairy is false. Elementary, my dear Watson.

It was then necessary to investigate this case from the facts and that is what they did. As soon as he received the original negatives sent by Mr. Wright, Gardner took them to be examined in London. “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. ” That was the opinion of a renowned photographer called Snelling. But to which he added that although there was no evidence of manipulation, the negative could be produced as such if someone so desired and without necessarily the presence of true fairies.

Other experts had access to the negatives. Arthur Conan Doyle took them to Kodak technicians. In his words, in a letter to Gardner: “I saw Mr. West and another expert of the Company. They examined the plates carefully, and neither of them could find any evidence of superposition, or other trick. On the other hand, they were of opinion that if they set to work with all their knowledge and resources they could produce such pictures by natural means, and therefore they would not undertake to say that these were preternatural. “

All that could be said is that those scenes were in front of Mr. Wright’s Midg. That they were made with an Imperial Plate, brand of photographic plates of the time, that the day was bright, that the shutter speed was 1/50 s and that the subject was about four feet away from the camera. But if it was really a fairy, elf, gnome, or piece of cardboard, no expert wanted to make that statement categorically.

The case was successful in periodicals at the time. Arthur Conan Doyle published a long article in Strand Magazine, which motivated several letters and other articles, doubting or acclaiming the discovery. But the case was gradually forgotten. A second series of 3 photos was taken on Gardner’s aforementioned second visit to the Wright family in 1920. They were received by Doyle and Gardner himself as irrefutable proof that the two young women were indeed able to call and photograph those beings. But the fact remained isolated and it was not the beginning of a new era in the relationship between humans and fairies.

Third photograph taken in 1920

Only in 1978 did the magician James Randi, who specialized in debunking paranormal events, carried out a computer-assisted study of the negatives and showed that the figures were suspended by strings, thus revealing the falsity of the claim that they were fairy pictures. In 1982/83 Geoffrey Crawley, editor of the British Journal of Photography, also conducted studies on negatives and came to the same conclusion. In addition to the negatives themselves, research with images to which Elsie could have had access showed a similarity impossible to be just the work of chance. The figure below shows to what extent the poses and style of the fairies in the first photo were probably copies of images that circulated in publications of the time.


Both Gardner and Doyle knew that Elsie was creative, that she drew well and that she had even worked drawing for a jeweler. Not only that, but formerly she had been an assistant in a photo lab. But none of this prevented them from believing and promoting the case as they did.

Cottingley faries and Roland Barthes

I became aware of this story because I bought a Midg at an auction and researching the camera I found the case of the Cottingley fairies. I read Arthur Conan Doyle’s book and some other sources on the internet. Especially the Science Museum in London, which holds cameras, photos and documents related to the case. All of this brought me to the book La Chambre Claire, by Roland Barthes, which I read in the early 2000s. I didn’t like the book but I read it and even summarized it trying to like it. It seems to me a long digression promising some elucidation about the nature of the photographic image, about what makes it different from other images, but he keeps talking more about specific photos, photos of his mother, for example, without drawing any comprehensive and interesting conclusions from them. . The author makes an attempt at classification but soon abandons it. It creates new terms like punctum, studium that resemble the ectoplasm of the Theosophists.

He still has the honesty or dubiousness of relativizing the importance of what he is saying. It looks like one of those books that the editor asks for and the author sits down to write it a little grudgingly. It was written in less than two months in 1979. Not much research is done in that time. But with the erudition and mastery he had of writing, he started to talk about photographic themes, classifying the types of surprise in photography, the relations of the image with its referent, of the image with death, without actually forming any new understanding of photography in the relation to other images. I now saw that the critical reception was not good according to an article in Wikipedia.

However, if you put the phrase “ça a été” + Barthes, as I did just now on Google, you will see something like 119,000 results. This seems to be the legacy of La Chambre Claire. I have never seen anyone mention anything else or comment on any aspect raised in the book other than “ça a été”.

“Ça a été” which translates as “it was”, is something like the conclusion of the book by Roland Barthes. He presents it with some caution: “The photography noema is simple, banal; no depth: ‘It was.’ I know our criticisms: what! a whole book (even brief) to find out what I know from the first glance? – Yes, but such evidence can be the sister of madness.” He already criticizes what he said and then throws that essence (noème) of photography into the poetic field using the term “madness”. It like telling the reader, if you find it too obvious, too shallow, it’s your fault. You have no imagination.

When I read the book, this “ça a été” immediately took me to the Pencil of Nature by Henry Fox Talbot of 1844. One of the pioneers of photography. That was the name he gave to the first photographic publication with images of his new negative/positive process, Calotype, contemporary to the Daguerreotype, which was a direct positive. “Pencil of Nature” already contains the formula “ça a été”. This was the driver to the invention of photography, that is, the possibility of producing an image without human interference, the luminous image of the dark camera recording itself on a surface, the dominated nature reproducing itself at our service. This kind of automatism of the photographic record is present in the writings of all the founders of the new technique and it was clearly where its value resided, at least at the time of its invention. The camera records what is in front of it, so this record is a record of something that existed: “ça a été”.

But what about Cottingley fairies? Were they? Yes of course, they were. As experts attested to Gardner, Doyle and the world, the negative was not manipulated and could only be a record of something that existed. Barthes’s “Ça a été” also applies to Cottingley fairies. This shows how true and useless this formula is at the same time. It is simply the obvious consequence of what photography is. What really matters is to discuss what sense we make of these images that were recorded with light.

Image and Truth

Much more interesting is the point made by Ernst Gombrich, in his classic Art and Illusion, when he reminds us that images do not lie. He says that if there is a lie, it will necessarily be in the caption. If in the first photo taken by Elsie the caption is “Frances with the dancing fairies”, it will be a lie – as was clarified years later. However, if it is “Frances with the cardboard fairies”, then it will be true … and about the same image!

The photo itself, the image itself, does not matter if it has been manipulated or not, nor does it matter if “ça a été” or not, it is not an affirmation, it does not “say” anything. Not being an affirmation, they do not adhere, the qualities of true or false do not apply to it. A statement needs a verb and an image has no verb. Affirmations are constructions of speech whereas images are symbols that refer to things that may be real or unreal and in the overwhelming majority of times just conventions of a given culture. We learn to read images as we learn to read texts. But they only show, refer to something, according to certain rules, but they do not state anything.

This is a very illustrative case about the non-existent affirmative power of images. Above is a reproduction of one of the largest oil paintings of the 16th century. It was commissioned from Paolo Veronese, in 1573, for the back wall of the refectory of the Basilica of Saint John and Saint Paul and it measures 5.55 x 12.80 meters. The theme, very suitable for a refectory in a Dominican monastery, should be the Last Supper, usually Christ and his 12 apostles. Although the screen shows all Veronese’s mastery, it brought him serious problems with the Roman Inquisition. The presence of buffoons, drunks and clowns caused irritation at this peak event in the life of Jesus Christ. Actually, the atmosphere represented has nothing of the gravity that the biblical moment should inspire. Instead, it is irreverent and light like a good palace party.

Veronese was accused of heresy and ordered to change the huge screen in just 3 months. However, aware that the images are not statements in themselves, and probably not wanting to face the work of retouching the huge canvas, Veronese just changed the title. The canvas, instead of “The Last Supper”, was renamed “Banquet at Levi’s house”. A reference to another biblical passage, incomparably less important than the Last Supper and of which many sinners took part according to the sacred scriptures themselves. The process at the Inquisition was closed without any changes in the painting.

The suggestive power of images

We can see the “fakes”, touch-ups, manipulations and montages as ways of using the supposed photographic authenticity to lead the observer to create wrong subtitles on his own. But the bulk of the images we see are not manipulated to that extent, however, they are able to build understandings that, while not being technically true or false, are still capable of influencing understandings and behaviors.

Even authentic photos have a formative, or even manipulative, power that lies precisely in this “not saying anything”. Instead, they have the power to “suggest” statements that arise from confronting the observer’s context with what he sees in the image. Strictly speaking, it is the observer who creates his fairies. Elsie Wright’s father may not have cared much for the photo his daughter took, while Arthur Conan Doyle saw it as a fantastic discovery. Many who produce images and many who put them in circulation know how to use this suggestive power. Sometimes they do it for laudable purposes and sometimes not so much.

In the absence of subtitles, or even in spite of the subtitles, the observer creates his interpretations for the images. With or without “ça a été”, from any image, photographic or not, narratives are created as if involuntarily.

When you see an image in which, for example, a celebrity is drinking a soda, the image may lead you to believe that that person likes the soda, that she is slim because she drinks that soda and that slim and happy people usually take that soda. We all know what advertising is, that the celebrity was paid to take the photo and allow its use, but the suggestion works anyway.

Not being affirmations in themselves, the images somehow exempt their sender from the responsibility of proving the statements that can be taken from them or that they may suggest in the mind of the observer, however obvious these suggestions may be. He can argue that such conclusions are viewers’s  conclusions and that he never said that categorically. He did not say. Veronese, in order not to touch the image, simply changed the statement that accompanied it. Although it was a creation in painting, he was responsible for what could be concluded from his vision of the Last Supper – but only to the extent that he claimed that it was a painting of the Last Supper.

It is not without a good dose of authoritarianism that someone is held responsible for what he did not say categorically and even worse, without giving him a chance to clarify what his position on the matter is. Even the Inquisition, famous for its small room for condescension, gave Veronese this chance.

Censorship, as an instrument of dictatorships and regimes of exception, has in images its thorniest territory. It is generally much easier to qualify a text than an image as illegal or revolutionary. It is clear that figurative language and analogies give a good margin of maneuver to those who challenge the power established with words. But an “affirmative” text is crystal clear in a way that images, strictly speaking, never are.

This gives the images a corrosive and transformative power that makes them one of the privileged means of advertising, whether aimed at consumption, religiosity, politics, in short any revision of values and behaviors of groups or of the whole society. It is common for us to find in the images the harbinger of transformations that only materialize later on in consensus, in the form of new cuseoms or even laws.

Pre-photography realism

In addition to this idea of authenticity, somewhat problematic as we have seen, photography has created a new space for the concept of realistic representation. These are two intertwined but distinct questions. It is one thing for the photographic image to be authentic, without manipulation, another thing to be “as if I were just before the scene”. An obvious example is to consider that a black and white photo may be authentic, without any manipulation, but will always be less realistic than a technically equivalent but colorful one. Without trying to define what would be realistic, let’s use the common sense that it would be to represent things as they present themselves visually. This is very complex if taken seriously. But let’s use this lighter understanding. It is easy to observe, looking at the history of the images, that the concern with realism far preceded photography and paved the way for it. Photography was not a disruption in that sense.

For many centuries, realism was not a concern in the production of images. The overwhelming majority of images produced from the High Middle Ages were not even of things that existed or happened here on Earth. When they were, they were images of kings and their battles, but in those cases, idealization, attention to the symbols of royalty and clarity of the narrative were much more important than verisimilitude or visual illusion. The individual was above all the bearer of a name, a lineage, a title. The public appearances of kings and nobles were official, protocol and their individual traits were much less important than their name, their weapons, robes and crown.

The desire for realism was introduced very slowly and not very well understood. Some artists like Kasemir Malevich (1879-1935), for example, tried to trace an art history as an evolutionary line of images towards the perfection of which he himself would be the living expression. The journey from a rough start, went through realism and finally discovered the abstraction that would be like the nec plus ultra of the arts. They attributed the lack of verisimilitude of renaissance images to a lack of dexterity and knowledge. They said the same thing about people in Africa or the Americas, they were inept as children to draw. It would be a frustrated wish for the medieval artisan his inability to do something at the level of a Leonardo or Michelangelo – as if he knew what a Leonardo or Michelangelo would become. This is simply naive and ignorant. In fact, there was simply no desire to represent things visually. Christianity was the religion of “the book”, of the word, and in the beginning, it simply condemned any image. Realistic or not realistic, illusion or non-illusion, these questions did not exist. When the images came in, they came in calligraphic and stylized, as if engendered from the alphabet itself.

Giotto di Bondone  Lamentação, Capela Scrovegni

We know that Giotto (c. 1267 – 1337) was one of those who began to wonder how the scenes of the bible would be seen from within the space where they occurred, observed from a certain point of view, within a certain landscape or physical environment, as if the artist were an eyewitness to the sacred event.

Christ in Majesty – Lindisfarne Monastery Gospel sec VIII – England

Giotto began to wonder why other artists made the drapes with so many folds. The fabrics don’t fall like that. The answer is that the concern of its predecessors was not to represent how the fabric falls. The folds in the mantle of Christ in the Gospel of Lindisfarne, above, equally spaced, had a more ornamental function and only suggestive of their physical nature. The strength of the devotional image came from its beauty, its harmony and the artist’s manual work with its care and caprice. It was an image and not a scene. From Giotto, we started to follow the possibility of an illusionistic drapery in the garments of the sacred characters. Biblical passages became scenes from the Bible and this was very new, a real break. The next step was to focus on completely secular motives, but first the artists endeavored to naturally represent the supernatural.

Invention of the individual

It was not only in religious scenes that a growing interest in a more direct relationship between the physical aspect and its image representation had an impact. From some time after the year 1000, a new concept of “individual” began to take shape. Before that, the subject was a member of some group, had a defined role that determined him regardless of possible personal preferences. It did what its ancestors did and it had to be what they were. His “individuality” of course existed, but it was supposed to occupy a distant second place. With the invention of courteous love, tales of chivalry, Roman de la Rose, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their troubadours, psychological and personality traits began to surface.

Portrait of Jean II, le Bon, anonymous c 1350 – Louvre.

In heraldry, the figure of the king in profile, as this is the most distinctive angle of a physiognomy, has been used for a long time and normally kept somevisual relationship with the portrayed. But the image above is what is considered the first portrait made to be a portrait and to show concern for the recognition of the person in question. This was new. To find something similar, we would have to go back to the portraits of Fayum in Roman Egypt to the times of Christ. After that, interest in verisimilitude in portraits experienced a long abstinence to reappear only around the 14th century. This wooden painting featuring the King of France, with that relaxed expression, even if it is not really the first, is an example that marks this transformation.

Once the desire for physiognomies to be recognized in an image was reinstated, the idea of photography began to make sense. It is clear that the artists immediately developed the techniques and materials to meet this growing desire, but in certain cases there was already a certain discomfort with this intermediation.

A typical situation in which a mechanical process would have undeniable advantages over manuals is that of pre-nuptial portraits. When a wedding was under negotiation and the bride and groom would have difficulties for a possible live meeting, a trusted painter was sent to make a faithful portrait, usually of the bride. But that depended more on who would be the final decision, sometimes it was the woman’s, and the portrait would help to decide whether or not to link. But what was expected of the image was exemption, something that we can again call “realism”.

The portrait reproduced above is of Isabela from Portugal. The pretender was Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. It was made when he was discussing with the Portuguese court his third marriage and the bride was 30 years old. No one less than Jan van Eyck traveled about two thousand kilometers, in 1428/29, to make the portrait and send it by the same route to Bruges (today Belgium) where the interested duke was waiting for it. Unfortunately the original was lost and the picture above is just a copy. It is not important for the example, but the two got married in 1430 and had 3 children.

Perhaps you are wondering about the difficulty of imagining someone’s real physiognomy just from a painted portrait. It is opportune to remember that realism, even photographic, is something you learn. We, after seeing many real people and their respective photographs, got the hang of this media and from a certain point, just by a photograph, we can imagine what the person is really like. With the exception perhaps of famous people, they generally disappoint when we see them live. But this is because all his appearances on camera are studied and the real person is more of a support for a character that is created.

But anyway, we have a photo decoder developed at the expense of training. Then it seems natural, we feel no effort being made and we have difficulty understanding how someone can think or see differently. We keep thinking that clumsy and dated are the images of other peoples, of other times, but ours are not, ours are “realistic”. But it is a fact that people without the habit of seeing photos, even photos that we consider perfect, have difficulty in translating. In 1429, Philip the Good had more training than any of us to imagine what his Isabela would be like from a painting by Jan van Eyck. The American philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906-1998), defines “realism” as a representation in line with the conventions of his time. It’s a great definition.

Invention of Nature

Photography owes much to the invention of the concept of Nature as we know it today. A new terrestrial and independent nature. Still divine creation yes, no doubt, but run by its own laws and therefore within the reach of man. When the “things” of this world became the subject of drawings and paintings, the field was finally ready for photography to enter history.

Albrecht Dürer– Rhino – 1515 Woodcut

Dürer’s rhino (1471–1528) had no devotional value. There was no reason for the artist to go to such lengths to invent textures, scales in a kind of armor that resembles the armor of a medieval knight. But the problem is that he carved this very fine woodwork from a description. He has never seen a rhino in his life. Although this drawing has traveled the world and been a huge success as a faithful representation of the exotic animal, at some point they began to realize, in this and other cases, that the artist had been creative where he should not have been. The images were no longer to adore an ideal being called a rhino. They were to get to know and recognize the real rhinos.

After the maritime expansion, the desire to know, to investigate new worlds and all the diversity of nature grew and was the basis of zoology, botany, geology and also History itself, like this, with a capital H, through documents, monuments , and archaeological materials. It was the beginning of all anthropological sciences, of all studies of peoples and civilizations in the most diverse forms of manifestation and human presence on Earth.

The 18th century saw the birth of great museums and an explosion of publications on general studies. Collections and cabinets of curiosities have long been in fashion among bourgeois and even aristocrats. But the same desire was fulfilled for the less fortunate in a more accessible way through publications. The growth in the production and distribution of images was epidemic. Finally, probably, anyone who was asked to describe the ideal characteristics of these images, or what they expected from them, would describe what only photography could provide.

Above is the cover of a volume of Natural History by Englishman John Ray (1627–705). Originally written in Latin, in the 18th century, this French translation was published in 1767. John Ray was one of the most important naturalists, initiator of systematic studies of nature with the focus that we still have today. Much of the taxonomy we use to name plants and animals came from the system proposed by John Ray. He was also the one who proposed the concept of “species” for animals and plants, and how to classify them.

Beyond the pre-nuptial portraits, it was in the sciences that the necessity of photography was more clearly felt. Below is an excerpt from an “introductory note”, avertissement, to the publication of John Ray’s volume on ornithology

Notes highlighted in yellow:

  1. Superiorly performed by one of the most skilled artists we have in this genre. [were designed, engraved and colored by an artist named Martinet]
  2. They were all drawn and engraved from nature. It can be seen from the details that nothing has been neglected for the perfection of this work.
  3. … that he [bookseller] colored a small number of copies of the planks of this work from nature
  4. These boards are painted and colored from nature with the greatest care.

It is easy to see that what such a publication needed was photography. The French expression d’après nature, which I translated as “from nature”, appears three times in this short passage. It means that the images are not from memory, still less from “hearing about”, but that they were made from the live observation of the bird in question. It means ça a eté.

D’après nature, é um modo de proceder e virou um selo, uma requisição básica para todas as imagens cujo objetivo seria apresentar fidedignamente o seu referente. Rinocerontes de Dürer não foram mais aceitos. Até mesmo a pintura artística, para a qual a autenticidade não é a princípio uma máxima, saiu do atelier para o campo aberto. No início foram os blocos de notas, com desenhos e esboços executados rapidamente e apenas preparatórios para o posterior trabalho à óleo, mas todos conhecemos a figura emblemática do pintor com seu cavalete, avental, tubinhos de tintas e paleta pintando ao ar livre, d’après nature.

page from John Ray’s book on ornithology

At the end of the 18th century, photography was more than expected, it was a clamor of the times. That is why it has had several independent inventions around the world. But looking at the picture above, very poorly reproduced from a scan available online by the National Library of France and captured on an Adobe Acrobat print screen, we can see that the competition was tough.

It would take decades for photography to cope with the richness of a good engraving. I saying engraving just to stay in the mechanical means of reproduction. But anyone who has ever seen a Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden canvas up close will remember that these northern European painters knew how to materialize the world on their canvas already in the 15th century. The tradition has been maintained and many so-called hyper-realistic paintings today use resources that seem to go beyond the photographic and are in fact quite aptly to receive this “hyper” prefix.

But the first photographic techniques were completely incapable of rendering the vivid impression that we have of the birds’ feathers in this print of more than 250 years. More than seeing, they allow us to “understand”. This image not only shows us, it “teaches” us how these birds are. Sometimes drawing can be didactic in a way that fails in photography even with all the resources, even digital.

The point is that about the photo it was known that the process was “bad” but mechanical and at first without human interference. Gradually, too, factors such as speed, portability, little skill required and economy proved to be decisive factors. But it will always be more inherent to the engraved or painted image that its ça a été is much more problematic because it depends on the skills and honesty of the author, even if well executed and telling much more about shapes, textures and details. Historically, photography replaced illustration when we preferred something easier and poorer in the name of its authenticity.

Roland Barthes is right in calling attention to the ça a eté brought by photography only if we pay attention to the fact that it was not actually illusionism or photographic precision that caused manual means of producing images to be abandoned in favor of the new technique. The central point was the demand for images that were mechanical, free and independent of artist’s hand.

Photographic authenticity today

Summarizing what we’ve seen so far. Coming from a long maturing process, at the beginning of the 19th century, a will, a desire, a longing for authenticity in the images was already installed. Photography was the answer to that quest. Response to some extent imperfect, as the tricks, retouches and montages came practically together with the pencil of nature. We must also consider that the photographic image is often not as clear and didactic as an illustration. Even with these caveats, photography was extremely successful and was installed as a standard for authentic representation of reality due to a supposed impersonality and evident ease of the process compared to drawing or painting. All of this considered, there is an undeniable efficiency in photography when it comes to representing a scene in an authentic way and that lends itself well to a realistic reading. Realistic here has the sense of allowing someone to imagine something assimilable to the visual experience that they would have had if they were where the camera was at the moment of taking the photo.

But the point I wanted to draw attention to is that this only happens when there is a “will” for authenticity and realism on the part of those involved in the production, circulation and consumption of images. Photography emerged from this desire, but that is far from universal and timeless. Instead, this desire came from a historical process, it emerged very strongly in the 19th century as the culmination of a long project, of which some points and evidence were briefly mentioned here.

There are times and conditions when you don’t want to look like you’re in the camera’s stance. We want to see a different world. Of course, this is often the case today. We want to see distorted colors, we love high key, low key, filters, corrections and adulterations of all kinds. We love black skies on sunny days. We love interference that previously would have been simple image defects. There is a real resurgence of historical photographic processes, abandoned, precisely because of their precariousness, but recently they have become attractive due to their defects and artifacts. Is this conceptually different from the calligraphic image of a thousand years ago? Wouldn’t it just be another kind of “not real” and “not authentic” simply manufactured in other ways and in other directions? Isn’t it true that sometimes it doesn’t bother us, we even appreciate it, when the camera shows what never existed and / or when the caption lies shamelessly?

A society that recognizes itself as “post-truth”, has all the pre-disposition to be also “post-photographic”, that is, to use photography to produce images without any commitment to the authentic or the realistic rendering. Without judgment of value, without entering into the question of whether this is good or bad, the fact is that what gave birth to photography is no longer, not with the same strength as before, what we expect from it today. In many situations, it is no longer required to be the pencil of nature in the way it was designed to be.

Perhaps for the sake of simple tradition, the camera still enjoys a reputation for being impartial in the representation of things. We still hear people saying “this was captured on camera”, or “this is a photo” as a certificate of authenticity. But whoever hears this argument is increasingly skeptical as to what this really means. Objectively the camera still lends itself to scientific photography where exemption is crucial. But the credibility of the claims that are or can be made from the thousands of images that invade us, especially on social media, seems to be diminishing by the day. Being a photographic does not give an image today the status it had a few decades ago. Even the scientific photo, when circulated in the electronic media, no longer inspires the same confidence as before, because the institutions and the vehicles themselves are no longer able to assert their own authority or the dependability of their sources. Dependability is again questioned. Authority loses its universality and its scope does not extend beyond groups from a divided society and their interests.

Fake news is usually supported by an image. It does not scare the fact that they are produced, this is not new, what scares is to see how they are passed on by people who know they are fakes or who have a blind faith in their veracity just because they bring what they want to believe. They say what they want to hear. If it is in favor of their position, if it makes others think badly of what they hate, or good of what they love, lying, just because it is a lie, does not bother them anymore.

This posture gives a new place for photography in our society. Digital photography, with its incomparably greater flexibility than analog photography, ends up being the means of production par excellence of this new imagery. More and more images circulate and are absorbed, interpreted, through mechanisms very similar to the old faith. There is a predisposition to give or not give credibility to images produced and circulated based on who is involved in that production and circulation, and that is what really counts. This acceptance warms up a comfortable feeling of belonging to the group that accepts it and, equally pleasant, of hating groups that may deny it. The image is confronted with positions that are already internalized and it is from this confrontation that its condition of authenticity is determined and that it is considered true to the statements that can be made about it. We definitely are living the coming of fairies.


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