Astronomically, the Age of Aquarius is a wobble in the earth’s rotation every 2,160 years. Mystically, the Age of Aquarius is a “new age”, which started in the 19th Century, and has since seen mysticism slowly entering all aspects of the mainstream. 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. In these few years, pop culture witnessed the flourishing of an unprecedented mystical revival. In 1967 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 me during an interview last year) “people with long hair who bought their clothes in thrift stores”, and with the Vietnamese War at its height, she discovered photography and became unofficial artist in residence. One night, in the summer of 1970, after buying a black taffeta dress with white stars, she had a dream and 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 next 5 years, photographing in the 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 as the Queen of Pentacles in the black taffeta dress which had perhaps triggered the dream that started it all. 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 up to 5 negatives superimposed to give certain magical effects of objects 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 Warhols’ work and Pop Art were beginning to be a reference for her generation. Nettles, however, admits that, for her at the time, she was more interested in the more narrative photography of Lucas Samaras, as opposed to the more iconic silkscreen celebrity images which Warhol was working on throughout the 1960s. Her teacher, Uelsmann taught the darkroom techniques of using multiple negatives, or blends, and several other methods used to produce these images. From Fichter, she learnt to paint on photographs and negatives to get certain effects, all relatively new techniques and the Mountain Dream Tarot was an opportunity to experiment with different mediums. The techniques available were pretty basic compared to those used by photographers today. As she told me, “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.”
By 1975, she was ready to publish the deck in its entirety, and took it to a printer’s in Rochester, New York. Only 800 copies were produced and Bea Nettles herself helped glue them, trim them, box them up and make labels. Many were given away to friends and models and by the end of the 1970s, there were hardly any left. The Mountain Dream Tarot was reproduced in Stuart Kaplan’s The Encyclopaedia of Tarot, and is now seen as historically significant for being the first photographic treatment of all 78 cards in a genre that has been in existence for over 500 years, and the original deck has become highly collectable. However, it has subsequently been republished and with each passing year, these images appear more and more evocative and magical, more and more haunting, capturing an idyllic world of 1960s art school friends recreating timeless archetypes, with the Vietnam War happening elsewhere, and the American art world in upheaval, and a way of working with photography which now seems to have vanished forever.
I originally published this article in Parq Magazine, February 2010 www.parqmag.com