Imagine deciding to execute your own tarot deck using the photographic arts. Not just the 22 cards of the Major Arcana, mind you, but the whole kit and caboodle—all 78 cards, right down to the 7 of swords and the 3 of cups, every damned repetitive variation. Now imagine that there’s no such thing as Photoshop and that digital photography also isn’t yet a part of our lives either.
How difficult would that be, how much planning would it require? Even if you were able to do it, do you think you could make them turn out good? What are the odds that it would have any artistic merit at all?
Bea Nettles has dedicated her life to photography, and she executed what is believed to be the world’s first-ever photographic tarot deck in the early 1970s. She was enrolled as a printmaking student at the Penland Art School in Bakersville, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, when in 1970 she had a dream in which she came up with the idea of producing her own tarot deck using the art of photography.
The resulting deck is often breathtakingly gorgeous. It is also whimsical, homespun, frequently funny, personal and intuitive. Lacking a lion to portray “Strength,” she used a hardy sheepdog instead. The images exploit the Appalachian setting. While it is never far from the spirit of a modernist like Man Ray, it also has a distinctively spooky vibe that is in keeping with the tarot. The project took her several years; in 1975 it was published by Inky Press Productions as The Mountain Dream Tarot. In the deck she posed as the Queen of Pentacles wearing the same black taffeta dress that had inspired her dream.
Nettles was assisted in her project by two professor at the University of Florida, with whom she had worked as an undergraduate. Jerry Uelsmann introduced to her the idea of combining multiple negatives in a single image. Robert Fichter taught her how to paint on photographs and negatives to get various results.
As part of the introduction to her deck, Nettles wrote,
The mountain dream tarot came to me in a dream in the summer of 1970. The decision to assemble a photographic set of cards was made in my sleep. I began the next morning at Penland School in North Carolina. I chose models who suited the cards and after reading the card’s description we took a walk to find the right place to make the picture. ... I based my imagery on the classic Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Waite. My cards are an intuitive, not a literal interpretation of the deck.
Years later, Nettles said of the tarot deck,
If you needed an eagle in an image, you had to find an eagle to photograph…. The same was true with flames, water, boats, swords, and all of the other props. I shot the images with my medium format Yashica D camera, processed the film, and printed either in Penland’s darkroom or my own. The cards in the original deck were machine stitched between 2 sheets of frosted mylar.
In 2007 Bruce Springsteen released his 15th studio album, called Magic. On the CD itself (and on the label on the LP) is an evocative image of a heart being pierced by three swords, which—of course—comes from the three of swords card in Nettles’ deck.
Today Nettles is in her early 70s and has spent her life as a professor of photography, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Tyler School of Art, and the University of Illinois, where she is currently Professor Emerita. I’d be shocked if she weren’t a good one.
You can buy prints of her tarot deck from Nettles’ website or buy her stuff on Amazon.
Ace of Swords
Ace of Wands
King of Wands
King of Swords
Queen of Swords
9 of Swords
9 of Cups
8 of Wands
8 of Swords
7 of Pentacles
4 of Pentacles
4 of Cups
3 of Cups
2 of Pentacles
(Hat tip to John Coulthart)
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘The Black Power Tarot’: Beautifully illustrated tarot deck with Sun Ra, Richard Pryor and more!
A fucked-up Tarot deck with its own soundtrack by Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer