I struggled with bringing the backstory of this assignment together so am following the evaluation format but in more detail. Evaluation first, detail below.
Technical and visual skills
Every assignment ever has been a quantum step for me in this area and this one has been no exception. I was constantly learning what worked, what didn’t, constantly experimenting and refining my technique.
Some of my biggest challenges were in the most basic of areas – what camera to use and how to hold both it and the torch. I was working in the dark, needed longer exposures and hence had a problem keeping the torch still enough as the projected images were not exactly pinpoint sharp at the best of times. After trying out my flash stands, camera tripod and various hair elastics to hold it all together, I begged a camera club mate for gadget help and he loaned me a couple of small light stands (important as I tended to be working at ground level) and a superb clamp thing that would hold the torch and adjust in all three dimensions. It did take me a few goes to work out the possibilities that it offered but it was invaluable. I started working with my dslr but found that my iPhone was a better choice. Firstly because of peer feedback that the low-fi approach was more in keeping with my approach of re-visiting the Cottingley Fairies, and secondly because it was possible to work hand held with it and achieve the right angle whereas the dslr had to be mounted upside down on the tripod and became unnecessarily difficult to work and angle in the dark. Working with both torch and camera on separate stands made it very difficult to ensure that there were no stand legs in the images. Following a suggestion on the OCA board I also acquired a couple of bendy metal tubes with clamps on each end which allowed me to get the torch positioned in confined spaces without needing the space for a stand. I’m not sure how many shoots there were in total – 6-8 I think – I just kept going until I thought I had enough for a strong edit.
However working with my phone presented its own challenges – I had to amend my workflow so that I could get the images into Lightroom and tagged and processed the same way I do with dslr files. Video has been a learning curve too. I ended up cancelling an online yoga subscription and instead upgrading my Vimeo so I didn’t keep getting stressed running out of space every week. I still need to work out the best apps for me to use with video.
I haven’t done much processing with the jpgs – they didn’t really need much on the whole. A couple needed highlights lowering which I’ve done in Lightroom. I was happy with the colour palette provided by the projections at night. I did consider taking the work into black and white. On the one hand, if colour photography had been available to Elsie and Frances I am sure they would have used it. On the other, I am reasonably sure that if the work was made today and put on Instagram, the temptation to put it into black and white to achieve that “vintage/authentic/classic” look would be hard for many teenage girls to resist. So I have kept them in colour, because that is part of what makes this work mine.
The projections were provided from a child’s toy torch that came with three discs of fairy and unicorn projections. Focus was achieved by adjusting the barrel at a range of about 20cm to 1metre. Focus was very basic however. The success of the projection depended on ambient light (or the lack of it), the evenness, reflectiveness, texture and colour of the surface that I was projecting onto.
Quality of outcome
Mixed feelings here. I keep thinking that there’s something missing. There’s definitely room for more images but I’ve kept to the requested 7-10 images. I think the context has been difficult. There’s a huge diversity of readings possible from this work and I want to be sure that my context reflects this. I am happy with the images though, they resonate with people.
It was very difficult work to make, far harder than I expected. There’s something deeply unpleasant about photographing the dirty, the untidy, the forgotten and the very private. Yet this was another instance of the unseen, and generally discomfort is a strong indicator that I’m working on the right lines.
I was trying to put everything into one video. But then I thought about how I’d want the work to be seen, and it wouldn’t be as one long video. I like little bite size videos and jpgs that you can stop, look at, then wander back to in your own time. I really like the idea of putting everything onto Instagram with its own hashtag, as I think if Cottingley did happen again today at the hands of teenage girls, social media is where it would happen. Also, having watched the film inspired by the Cottingley fairies hoax, the physicality of the prints, the glass plates, the boxes, the enlarged prints – they’re all such a big thing so I think my incarnation would have to feature something on a wall. I like the idea of lightboxes, or perhaps wall mounted ipads where you could swipe through the images and video.
I’m not quite sure where the idea came from, it wasn’t on my original list. I had worked briefly with this kind of torch before, on the light section in FiP when I projected planets into the background of a portrait. I explored one other idea for this assignment – guilt – link is the references. I thought both ideas had legs but the Fairies were more practical to make in that they didn’t require me to throw out everything that I was photographing. Originally I was going to do the white shirt narrative, which was on the original list, as a series of self portraits in fitting rooms, showing both the range of sizes encompassed by a “size 14” label and the diversity of décor in fitting rooms. This one fell prey to timing though, and the need to find a whole day in a decently sized high street. It’s still on my shortlist for A3 self portrait however.
I enjoyed the “unseen” nature of the projections, as well as fairies typically being unseen, they were only visible when I made the projection, and that could only be done in low or no light. So once again I found myself doing assignments after dark. Housework tends towards the unseen too (see context section below).
I considered, and rejected, suggestions that I could include myself in the work. I was very aware of self portrait coming up in the next assignment and didn’t want to get side-tracked . I wanted to keep the low-tech feel of the work, and that would not fit with substantial photoshoppery of a reluctant human. Also, I very much wanted to keep the reference to the original work intact, and somehow substituting a 50 year old woman for a couple of teenage girls would I think lose the point slightly, even with a fairy on my finger. There are entire photography studios based on recreating women as fairies, but interestingly the women are not typically shown in housework style sets, more beautiful spacious interiors and fantastic landscapes. This might be something to explore in future but I’ve happily parked it for now.
The joy of the domestic setting was that I never came close to running out of shots and there was plenty to explore. I enjoyed making visual puns – fairy boats being floated in a filling bath or on a dripping shower head, an illuminated fairy lantern held aloft over a live power socket. I enjoyed working with the magic and the mundane in the same frame, with the idea that it might just be true (an idea which actually did gain a bit of traction here when the condemned dishwasher suddenly started working again). It made me really look at my house in the dark, I’ve never sat in front of the washing machine making video before. I’m hopeful that every action like this will result in my creative boundaries moving further and further back as I move through the course.
Context was the big surprise here. There was an absolute raft of useful material out there, but I really had to think about what I was looking for and where I was looking for it.
I started by learning everything I could about the Cottingley Fairies, up to and including fairly recent Antiques Roadshow footage. I read about housework, who does it, how long does it take, what are the attitudes towards it, how do attitudes change across different countries. See below. But there was still something missing.
Contextually, there is something to dig into with the housework. My Grandmothers and their mothers would have laughed roundly at me complaining about housework, given that I have machines that do so much of it, a small family that was entirely of my choosing and timing, and I am currently in the fortunate position of being a most-of-the-time student and some-of-the-time amateur musician whilst my young daughter is at school. I have a partner who’s happy to share some of the load, particularly cooking. My two northern grannies would have looked at the flashing LEDs and jingles on the various appliances and pointed out that I have no need of fairies.
The fairies are unseen, but so is much of the housework done in the UK – often by women who are working full time plus jobs as well as looking after shopping, cleaning, laundry, meal preparation, often for more than one household. A quick online search suggests that the Daily Mail believes women are now doing less housework than ever and that those women who do more housework will live longer. Other sources (eg the Guardian article below) are quoting weekly workloads of thirteen hours a week or more, on top of other paid work. In Sweden, you can deduct half the cost of services such as cleaning, cooking, gardening from your tax return, a policy that has created many thousands of new jobs.
Housework is invisible – we do it when the house is empty, it’s something that we have to get out of the way before we can do the other stuff. It’s always there. Even now, women are judged for the quality of their housework, by people who have never seen the homes in question. Who remembers Godfrey Bloom of UKIP, telling a group of female politicians that they were “sluts” because they admitted to not cleaning behind their fridges? The increase in aging populations and ill-health has resulted in a huge increase of male carers, child carers, all with housework responsibilities as well as personal caring.
I read about Disney which has a long tradition of showing fairies doing housework. I put the work up for peer review and was instantly pointed towards Martha Rosler’s video work “The semiotics of the kitchen”. I’d seen parts of this work once before, at the Avant Garde Feminism exhibition, but it hadn’t come to mind on this fairy work. Yet when you watch it you can see similarities in the isolation of features of the domestic, and the lack of smiles and joy in the subject (everyone in Disney does the housework with a smile whereas Rosler identifies and demonstrates the articles with a degree of detached violence). There’s a feeling of trappedness to both, and to my mind, resentment. This was useful, but it didn’t help me with contextualising the original work. Why would these fairy images, made a good 30 years before even Fantasia was released, have had such immediate and enduring appeal?
I found a 1973 paper by the president of the Folklore Society, considering the authenticity of the Cottingley Fairies (Sanderson, 1973), and I watched “Fairytale: A true story” (Fairytale: A true story, 1997) which despite its multiple divergences from the truth provided a fantastic amount of context and was pretty much the key to understanding more about the original work. We can look all we want at how the images were made, the way the two girls refused every opportunity to “come clean”, but that doesn’t tell us why their work seized the public imagination and commanded the time of luminaries of culture and the photographic industry.
The film reminds us of what else was going on in 1917 and onwards in Britain. The absolute horrors of WW1, households either bereaved of their loved ones or waiting anxiously to see if, when and in what state they would return. It shows us a society shown warmly welcoming distraction, escape (literally, in the form of Harry Houdini), fairy stories in the form of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan novel and play. A society where the spiritual and paranormal groups gained popularity as people sought to find comfort in the face of the losses and insanity of war. A society that welcomed the ideas of the innocence and peace of childhood, triumph over impossible odds and the dream that everything would be alright in the end. Conan Doyle, who I think was largely responsible for raising the profile of the girls’ work and hence the fame of the girls themselves, had himself lost a son in the war. When we look at all of this, the impact and appeal of the Cottingley Fairies becomes far more understandable. A hundred years on and our perception of fairies and fairy tales is formed and coloured by Disney, by the toy world feeding our children fairies and unicorns.
Sanderson, S. (1973). The Cottingley Fairy Photographs: A Re-Appraisal of the Evidence. Folklore, 84(2), pp.89-103.
Fairytale: A true story. (1997). [DVD] Directed by C. Sturridge. UK: Icon Productions.