Suza Scalora,
The Fairies
(HarperCollins, 1999)

Brian Froud and Terry Jones, among others, have already done something similar. The idea of creating a "real" guide to fairies, goblins or other fey creatures and filling it with the scholarly text and some form of supporting visual evidence isn't a new one.

But Suza Scalora, in her book The Fairies, has done it a little differently than I've seen it done before. She wasn't content to sketch or paint her subjects; she decided to capture them in all their photographic color and glory.

Of course, she sets the stage first, describing how she, an archeologist, came into the possession of an incomplete manuscript documenting the various species of fairies, as well as methods for luring them into view. A single pinhole camera image was sufficient to convince Scalora of its truth, she explains, but she foolishly exposed the aged print to the sunlight and the image faded quickly away. So, naturally, she grabbed her battered old camera and decided to collect her own photo evidence. This book, she says, is the result of her year-long quest.

Each photo is prefaced by the scholarly stuff, a chart detailing each fairy's name, the date and place of the sighting, history of that particular fairy, bait used, and additional notes on the experience. The text is clever enough, and definitely serves to give the book an academic facade, but it's obviously not the text that sells the book.

The book cover, on the other hand, likely is. It was sufficient to grab my interest as soon as I pulled the book into view. A golden-skinned fairy, clothed in long, thick curls of hair and delicate, moth-like wings, is crouched in a shimmering woodland setting. It's a gorgeous picture, no question about it. It's also the best of the collection inside.

That, I suppose, is my only real disappointment. After seeing the photo up front, nothing inside managed to top it, so each turn of the page was a slight letdown. Only slight, however; the entire collection is excellent from both a photographic and a fantastical point of view.

We catch a glimpse of Eugenie, a bashful forest fairy from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico; Twyla, a deep blue creature spotted in the deepening twilight in Costa Rica; the curious Mali, a fairy of the dawn found in the West Indies; the black witch Vivian discovered in Porto Alegre, Brazil; Thera, the ice fairy locked in an Icelandic glacier; and more.

Most of these photos are obviously posed shots of models made up and arranged for the shot on an elaborate set or, occasionally, out in the field. While they're often quite gorgeous from an artistic perspective, they don't really give readers the idea that Scalora was struggling to track down these elusive creatures. Fairies who flit in and out of sight, as well as in and out of history and folklore, aren't going to sit quite so still while their image is captured by a novice fairy tracker. Scalora made some efforts here, giving us a brief flash of green eyes set in a yellow face as one fairy swept by her in Brazil, making us search a Georgia forest to find the well-hidden Willow, and giving us an eye ache as we strain to make out the details of Dia, crouching in a Portofino, Italy woodland. But the majority of the pictures are a little too portrait-perfect.

OK, so Scalora probably wasn't trying to persuade readers that fairies really do exist. So a little suspension of disbelief is called for and, with the proper perspective, The Fairies works as an entertaining photo essay. Fairy fans should probably track this one down for themselves.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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