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 Nettles printed 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.