Abyssal Tarot: The Photography of Shelly Corbett; Booklet by Stephen Ahlbom
Review by Diane Wilkes

This deck affects me on an emotional level--the art isn't just beautiful, it evokes deep, inchoate responses. There are cards that literally make me ache.

There are also cards that just turn me off. But there's no denying the artistry of Shelly Corbett--her art is redolent with color, longing, life. And the five star presentation--the gold-tipped borders, the variegated card backs, the quality of the images--alerts you to the fact that this is a very special and unique deck. The setting suits the images and vice-versa.

The Fool is reminiscent of an elfin Frankie Addams or the character of Willie in This Property is Condemned, a wild young girl poised at the precipice of adolescence, with all its frangible, tremulous, terrible promise. The red-draped Magician is magical in his self-possession, or self-possessed in his magic--I'm not quite sure which. A veil obscures the face of the highly-charged High Priestess; she vibrates with diaphanous power.

The Empress is a bit creepy; with its lipstick-ed child wrapped in bridal white gauze, a floral wreath upon her hair, it conjures the uncomfortable memory of Pretty Baby and JonBenet Ramsay. The Emperor isn't any better--therein is a different kind of abuse suggested.

Note I said suggested. In some of the images I find disturbing, the menace is not overt, but whispered. First you see it, then you question yourself. And that's the scariest kind of menace of all, I think.

The Hierophant, on the other hand, is quite an overt image--in it, a naked woman is about to receive cunnilingus. Perhaps that is meant to symbolize the rites of communion--again, I am not quite sure. The companion booklet (which is neither white nor ludicrously little) states, "The priest is in the act of unseating the old goddess or enshrining the new. That it is his choice maintains the balance. The mother deity is his most heralded creation, the source of his spiritual power." Well, that's another interpretation, I suppose.

And so it goes, between lovely images that take your breath away, like the Lovers, which is an exquisite rendering of two naked bodies entwined and photographed in such a way that their bodies meld and flow into a whole. Then there are others that make you want to look away. All of the cards are impactful. And all of them are art.

A card like the Devil, another of the more overt images, expresses a kind of choking bondage that causes you to begin to gasp for air. It may disgust or repulse you, but it will move you. The Moon reminds me of an Ingres painting, opulent and sensual.

The Minor Arcana are as poetic and evocative as the Majors, but are often more cryptic. All of the Aces have an elemental quality, possibly because they are centered primarily on one image. The suits are traditional (Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles), the images are anything but.

Still, sometimes they work well on a traditional level. Often, "nostalgia" is a keyword for the Six of Cups and it is beautifully embodied in the image of a woman inhaling the evanescent aromas of a fragile flower. The blue background evokes a past filled with sadness and loss.

Other cards are harder to interpret, though the booklet is often helpful; it was written by Stephen Ahlbom, who matched the photographs to the 78 cards, so we better understand the intent behind the card. The Six of Wands shows a glamorous warrior woman aiming a bow and arrow towards the ground. This appears to me a hollow victory, at best, but I am not much for warrior manqués.

What I do like about the Minors is that they make me really mull over the images and see some of them in a new way. The Ten of Pentacles shows a burnished auburn-haired woman dressed in gold contemplating a brown void. The booklet describes this as a woman who "observes the staff about their household functions ... Her house is in its place and her soul is happy and content." I think that's projection, because, based on the image, her staff looks like mine: non-existent.

I spent considerable time looking at the court cards, grouping them by suit and then category. While the Swords Courts are all sepia-toned, none of the other suits seem to be related by color. The fiery Knight of Wands is--a naked female--in shades of blue. All of the Pages are female and very young, but the Page of Swords seems rather violent. In fact, all the Swords Courts emanate an aura of terrorism. The King of Swords is taken from a photograph entitled, "Most dangerous of all the lies," and depicts an embrace that suggests that love's protection is a vicious fantasy.

I sensed this would be an excellent deck to use for relationship readings, but was unsure if it could be used in other capacities. I was right about the first, and impressed by the reading I did using the layout in the booklet, which is reminiscent of the Tree of Life spread. Several things surprised me, though. The first was how just looking at these cards in combination moved me. I felt these cards. The second surprise was just how quickly and powerfully these cards cut to the heart of the matter. My readings were both visceral and straightforward.

So--this is an art deck that actually succeeds as a reading deck. And, as I mentioned before, the presentation is superb, and includes such unique features as deck backs that aren't the same for each card, but a changing percentage of four elements: fiery foliage, water, sky, and sand. All of the images were taken under water, which, while you might not know this if you hadn't read it, gives the cards a fluidity that packs an extra emotional punch. Even the companion booklet is the ne plus ultra of such things--it is printed on glossy paper and includes nice-sized images of each of the 78 cards. The photographs themselves are reproduced beautifully. Each card is an exquisite work of art, and fortunately the cards are large enough to do the images justice.

The only drawback to purchasing this deck is its high price tag: $300 plus shipping and handling.* While I imagine the costs of creating a deck like this are prohibitive, the fact that the price is reasonable doesn't make it any more affordable for most tarotists. This is a fantastic deck, and I recommend it for collectors and those whose love for innovative decks and quality photography make it a must-have. However, as you will have noticed from some of the images I include in the review, there are some people who will reject the deck because of the violence and nudity. Having said that, I have been labeled a prude, and, to me, the artistry of the Abyssal Tarot transcends such concerns. 

You can see more cards and order this deck here.


*  The deck has since been reduced to $150, which makes it much more palatable!

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs   X
Strength VIII, Justice XI X  
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana X  
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Wands, Chalices, Swords, Pentacles) X  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions Rods--Air; Swords--Fire X  
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                     X
Smaller than standard                                           X
Larger than standard                                             X  

Images © 2005 Shelly Corbett and Steven Ahlbom
Review and page © 2005 Diane Wilkes