I will be doing a regular Q&A about anything relating to this project and the tarot and wet plate collodion process in general. The website has only been up and running for a short period, so only one question received so far.
‘Do you do tarot readings’
The short answer is ‘No’.
I have done a couple of readings in the past, but am not a confident reader. I am familiar and comfortable with the tarot and understand the meanings of the cards. However, my fascination and interest in the cards is focused on the art, symbolism and history of the tarot. So I would describe myself as a tarot artist rather than a reader. I know lots of great tarot artists and tarot historians are great readers too, but I am not that talented.
Please email or use the contact form with any questions and I will answer them in a future post.
In my previous blog post, I talked about how I decided on what key elements and symbolism I wanted to include in each of the major arcana cards. In this post I will describe how I combine this with the aesthetic and look, and of the theme of the cards I am creating. This post will concentrate on the aesthetic and I will describe the theme in a future post.
The starting point for the aesthetic and look of my tarot deck is related to the medium I have chosen. By using the wet plate collodion photogaphy process, I am making a creative choice in how the medium impacts on the resulting image. Wet plate collodion has a unique look, that I believe to be both beautiful and mesmerising. It has a strange quality that captivates the viewer. Look into the eyes of a sitter on a wet plate and you feel you really are looking directly into their soul.
I describe the wet plate collodion process in more detail here. It was widely used from the 1860s to the 1880s. The look of wet plate collodion is influenced by a number of factors. I am using a camera dating from about 1880 and a selection of lenses from about the same period. I use the same collodion chemical as made according to recipes from that period. I use the same kind of substrate in glass plates. Everything is as close as possible to how it would have been done in the Victorian age. So the resulting images are as authentic and true to that period as I can make them.
So this is the first part of the aesthetic for my cards. That is that they genuinely look as if they could have been taken in the Victorian era. As far as I am aware the first photographic tarot deck was the beautiful and innovative Mountain Dream Tarot by Bea Nettlesprinted in 1975. But what if someone had produced a photographic tarot deck a century before that? What would it look like? What would be the influences? By using wet plate collodion, I can at least produce tarot images that could genuinely have been created then.
The wet plate process and the lens design and quality produces some interesting results compared to the later film negatives, and modern lenses. These include:
Wet plate collodion is a black and white process. It is only sensitive to blue light, so red appears as almost black and blue as almost white. When you see Victorian photos where they appear to be in mourning as they are dressed in black, this may not have been the case and they may have been in bright red or pink.
Early lenses were uncoated and of a simple design and this has a striking effect on images, especially on the way the background blurs. A very shallow depth of field and a swirling background are features of these lenses and the process.
Wet plate collodion is not as light sensitive as later methods. Most of my photos require an exposure time of between 5 and 12 seconds. Any movement during that time will result in a blurred image. It is not possible to get the pin sharp images we see in modern photography, and the slight softness of the image is a feature of the process and equipment. I should mention it would be possible to get sharper images by using modern lenses and powerful lighting units, but in my opinion this would detract from what I am trying to achieve.
Due to the process there are inevitably imperfections in every plate produced. Some of these can be explained, but some seem to be mysteries. These imperfections are often referred to as ‘artefacts’ and in some cases embraced as they are part of the uniqueness and charm of wet plate. I actively try to prevent such imperfections, but I have yet to produce a plate that is totally free from artefacts, and I suspect they will continue to appear in all my work.
In this post, I have described how the choice of wet plate collodion as the medium has a significant impact on how the cards will look. In my next blog post I will explain how I will try and bring this all together with a theme that combines the tarot imagery and symbolism with the look and feel of wet plate collodion.
In my last blog I described the key factors in creating my tarot card designs. The first of these that I will now describe in more detail was:
What do the tarot cards mean to me? What are the key elements and symbolism of a card that are the core of the meaning for that card?
I started collecting tarot decks before I had any books on the subject, and was interested in the similarities and differences between them without really understanding the reason why. Some subtle differences totally evaded my attention until I started looking at them more closely and reading about them.
For example, I was familiar with the Empress holding a shield with an eagle on it. But I had never noticed before that in some decks the shield was in her left hand, and some in her right. And some eagles are facing right and some left.
A selection of Empress cards from some different decks I own
Does it matter? Does this change the meaning of the card or the way it is read? Are these differences deliberate? I found the answers to these questions when I started researching the history of the tarot, the symbolism of the images and how these have changed and developed over the years. For the record, these minor differences can be significant, and my Empress will have a two-headed eagle on her shield for reasons I will explain when the card is created.
So, my approach to creating the cards was to firstly go through all of my tarot decks and analyse what made sense to me for each individual card. I then scanned the cards that resonated, printed them off all together one one sheet so that I could look at all the different designs for each card together. I then noted the characteristics for each card that were important for me and that I would want to appear on my designs.
At the same time I was reading the tarot history and symbolism books I owned, making notes for each card on the elements that were important for me. I began to realise I had significant scope to change some elements of the tarot without weakening the meaning and symbolism of those cards. I also realised some elements of the tarot were almost compulsory, and I really didn’t want change or ignore these elements. For example, I really can’t imagine the Hanged Man without that iconic crossed knee. And before you shout at me and point to some great tarot decks that have a Hanged Man without a crossed knee, this is my opinion on what is important to me in my deck.
The iconic pose of the Hanged Man
I also found many excellent online resources covering tarot history and symbolism. Special mention to the excellent Tarot Heritage website, and Mary Greer’s site too.
Combining these two approaches gives me an overview of the key elements for each card, and almost a checklist of what is important for me to include. This tells me what I really need to incorporate into my designs and what would be nice. It also helps me to decide on the subtle differences between cards and what, if any, such changes affect the reading of the card. And it gives me the opportunity to add some new or little used ideas on the cards.
At the time of writing this post, I have completed this approach for all of the major arcana, and am partway through the minors.
Having determined the elements and symbolism, the next step was to combine this with the idea for an image suitable for the wet plate collodion process and with the look and aesthetic I want. I will describe this in my next blog.
So having created this website such a long time after actually starting this tarot project means a lot has happened already. So the purpose of this blog post, and probably the following ones will be to document what has happened so far.
I’ve wanted to create my own tarot deck for a very long time, but it wasn’t until 2014 that I discovered the wet plate collodion photographic process (described in more detail here), and realised this was the medium I had been looking for. There are some photography based tarot decks, some film, some digital, some based on found images, some collages. But as far as I can see, no-one has created a wet plate collodion deck. I am not saying one does not exist, just that I have not seen one. I imagine some artists will have used the tarot theme to produce images as a project for individual cards or groups of cards, but I don’t think any have become completed decks.
After a lot of thinking, and finishing up other projects, it wasn’t until 2016 that I started some serious planning for the cards. I collected information about what I wanted for the individual cards and started storing these in A4 lever arch files. This has now expanded to cover seven folders.
The theme of the deck is influenced by vintage photography from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, inspired by images of fortune tellers, gypsies, dancers, silent movie stars and film stills. Some of these images appear in the header image at the top of this page. Add to that Victorian and Renaissance paintings and symbolism and references to tarot decks through the ages from the Visconti deck to Tarot de Marseille, to the French occultist decks and onto the Rider Waite deck and then more modern decks.
My approach to card design has been in two parts.
Firstly, what do the tarot cards mean to me? What are the key elements and symbolism of a card that are the core of the meaning for that card?
Secondly, how do I incorporate those elements and symbols in an image created by the wet plate collodion process and with the aesthetic mentioned above?
In addition to these factors, I also have to consider the following:
Wet plate collodion has some distinct issues that need to be considered in the design stage of the image.
As a photographic deck created without the use of Photoshop or collage techniques, costumes, props and accessories all need to be acquired.
I don’t want to use the same model on more than one card (although there is a case to do so for some cards if we consider the major arcana as a journey) so will need a large number of models.
Over the next few blogs, I will consider the above five areas in more detail.
So after working on this project for a very very long time, I have finally decided to get this website up and running to share the process. A lot of work has been undertaken already in the creation of this deck, and I will summarise this in my first proper blog post.
At the time of writing this post, I have fully designed and sketched 19 of the 22 major arcana and will be in a position to start photographing the images when I have acquired the relevant props.