Parq Magazine article about Mountain Dream Tarot by P.R.Winstanley

February 12th, 2010

This is the translation of an article that appears in this month’s Parq Magazine out of Portugal. It was written by P.R.Winstanley. A PDF of a portion of the magazine can be downloaded at their
The Mountain Dream of Bea Nettles
Text: copyright Roger Winstanley

In 1970, at Penland Art School, North Carolina, American artist Bea Nettles created the first ever tarot deck entirely made up of photographic images and this deck captures for us something of the atmosphere of a young, creative community at a pivotal time in American history.

Astronomically, the Age of Aquarius is a wobble in the earth’s rotation every 2,160 years. However, historically, the Age of Aquarius for most of us is those few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s when all things “occultly marvellous” as Theodore Roszak, counterculture historian called it, exploded in popular culture, especially music. In these few years, pop culture saw an unprecedented mystical revival flourish. Cult Magus Aleister Crowley appeared on the cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heartsclub Band, alongside Edgar Allen Poe and Carl Jung. Eastern gurus such as Sri Mahavatara Babaji and Paramhansa Yogananda became cultural references for many and astral travel, the I-Ching, tarot cards and the third eye became the height of fashion.

The same year that The Beatles launched their seminal album, American artist Bea Nettles entered Penland Art School as a printmaking student. While there, surrounded by artists and (as she told us) “people with long hair who bought their clothes in thrift stores”, and with the Vietnam War at its height, she discovered photography and became unofficial artist in residence. In the summer of 1970, she bought a black taffeta dress with white stars and in a dream that night, came up with the idea of recreating the tarot archetypes using the medium of photography. She was 23 years old and worked on the project for the following 5 years, photographing in landscape settings of Penland, using fellow artists, friends, colleagues and family as models. A weaving teacher with long flowing hair doubled up as the Moon, a ceramicist posed naked for the Star, and she photographed herself in the taffeta dress as the Queen of Pentacles. This was years before digital photography and photoshop had even been imagined and all the images were composed manually, with some cards made up of 5 negatives superimposed to give certain magical effects of things flying or suspended on clouds. In some cases negatives were retouched or the photographic prints were painted. She created the first ever entirely photographic tarot deck which captures for us something of the flourishing artistic community of the time around a traditional art school in North Carolina.

Art photography at the time was almost entirely black and white, small scale, with a lot of emphasis on 35mm “street photography.” She studied with the photographers Robert Fichter and Jerry Uelsmann at the University of Florida, as an undergraduate, both of whom were very experimental in their approach, and her and her contemporaries were beginning to take an interest in Warhol’s iconic images of celebrities and Pop Art. However, at the time, Bea was more interested in the narrative photography of Lucas Samaras. Her teacher, Uelsmann taught the darkroom techniques of using multiple negatives, or blends, which she used to produce these images. From Fichter, she realized that she could paint on photographs and negatives to get certain effects, images which may seem rudimentary to us now, but which at the time were new and experimental. The Mountain Dream Tarot was an opportunity to experiment with these different mediums. As she told us; “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 worked in standard black and white darkrooms and shot the images with my medium format Yashica D camera, processed the film, and printed either in Penland’s darkroom or my own. The photographic prints were then hand coloured and/or painted onto. The cards in the original deck were machine-stitched between 2 sheets of frosted mylar.”

The Mountain Dream Tarot was first printed in 1975, in Rochester, New York State. Only 800 copies were made, with Bea helping to assemble them all, gluing labels and boxing them up. Many decks were given away to friends and models and by the end of the 1970s, few were left. Some years later, it was included in Stuart Kaplan’s Encyclopaedia of Tarot, deemed historically significant for being the first ever photographic treatment of all cards in a genre which had been in existence for over 500 years. It became highly collectible and in 2001 was republished. The passing of time has not dated these images, which appear to us more and more haunting, more magical with each passing year. We are transported back to an idyllic artistic community, with art school friends acting out tarot archetypes, the Vietnam War happening elsewhere, the American art scene in upheaval and a way of working with photography which appears to have vanished forever.