The New York Tarot: An Interview with Giani Siri

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One of the description cards from the New York Tarot.

The New York Tarot
Created and photographed by Giani Siri
Self-published in 1987 in an edition of around 1000

Giani Siri’s New York Tarot is unique for several reasons. Along with Bea Nettles’s Mountain Dream Tarot (issued in 1975), it is one of the first examples of a photographic tarot. It is also a love song to New York City and its people, capturing life in 1970’s/1980’s New York in a way that is instantly recognizable to anyone who lived in the city during that time. The images are powerful, combining tarot symbolism with everyday life to reflect the magic that permeates any city, but particularly a thriving city like New York. Recognizable figures make appearances in the cards (among others, well-known pagan personality Margot Adler is the High Priestess, sci-fi author Samuel Delany is the Hanging Man, and bon vivant Quentin Crisp is Strength) alongside familiar New York touchstones (Who else but the Statue of Liberty would play the part of the Empress?), creating a deck that connects on multiple universal levels while also functioning as a tribute to a specific time and place.

hanging manThe 93-card deck also plays with form, incorporating 12 zodiac cards as well as substituting a Child card for the Page in each suit and adding a Dame (essentially a female Knight) to the court. In addition, the Major Arcana features some variations on the traditional lineup, with the Hierophant becoming the Psychopomp, the Chariot becoming Transport, and the World and Resurrection (Judgment) cards swapping places.

The origins of the New York Tarot are as fascinating as the deck itself, and I was enormously honored to speak with Giani Siri about its history and about her thoughts on how the cards work.

HOW WERE YOU INSPIRED TO CREATE THE DECK?

queen of cupsA friend, Amy Sefton, who eventually became the Queen of Cups in the deck, introduced me to the Morgan’s Tarot deck. At the time, I was working for a rock band called Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, which later became the Major Thinkers. Both of the front men are still practicing musicians. Larry Kirwan is in Black 47, and Pierce Turner is a solo performer. Back then—in the mid-70’s—they would do these regular gigs at a bar in the Village called the Bells of Hell, and Amy Sefton and her husband introduced me to them. I fell in love with the band, and I became part of the volunteer roadie crew. At the same time, I was working as a hotline counselor at a shelter for battered women.

I would go with the band to a venue, often a bar that I didn’t know, where I didn’t know anyone, in a neighborhood I had never been in, and we would unload the equipment and I would babysit the equipment while the guys went out to eat dinner. So I would be stuck in a bar where I didn’t know anybody, and I learned very quickly that if I pulled out that deck, the Morgan’s Tarot, and did a reading for myself for my own entertainment, pretty soon people would come up to me and we’d have this conversation: Are those tarot cards? Yes. Do you do readings? Yes. Do you charge money? No. And I would end up doing readings for random strangers.

What I discovered was that very often I was answering the same kinds of questions that I was answering for panicked people who called me on the hotline. I came to view tarot reading as a kind of folk psychotherapy.

Anyway, I was involved with this rock band. Very involved. I call it my first magical working group. I would go to every show, and there was this collection of us that followed the band around. There would also be observances at various times of the year, like at Aleister Crowley’s birthday, Rose Kelly Crowley’s birthday, solstices, equinoxes. The group was called, unofficially, Star Group 1. And it seemed to me that there were people in the group who embodied tarot characters. So I had the idea to photograph everybody for a tarot deck called the Star Group 1 Tarot.

transportBut then the Bells of Hell closed, the band moved on to a different venue, people sort of scattered. So the idea was in the back of my mind for a very long time, but I didn’t do anything with it. I moved on and became a stagehand for the off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway production of Torch Song Trilogy. One night, after cleanup–and I was assisted by, shall we say, herbals when this occurred–I had a moment where the thought occurred to me of how I could do the 10 of Wands card.

Between having the idea for the Star Group 1 Tarot and becoming a stagehand, I had been collecting decks. I had collected a huge number of decks, and in one of them the 10 of Wands had a woman tied to a stake, being burned at the stake. I felt that that really hit on something, and that night at the theater I had this moment where I envisioned the 10 of Wands as some horrible kids in Washington Square Park coming after a gay guy with baseball bats. And then I realized, “Wait a minute. This isn’t the Star Group 1 tarot. What is this?” Then I literally had a hallucination of a neon sign that said the New York Tarot. Over the course of three days, all the images–almost all the images–came to me. I wrote note after note after note. This person doing this. This place. These people standing this way. I saw exactly what the images would be. It was like storyboarding a movie. It was a very powerful spiritual experience, and I could not turn my back on it.

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE FOR THE DECK TO COME TOGETHER?

dame of wandsI spent the next 10 years talking people into posing for me to create these images I had written down. Often what happened was that things fell into my lap in really strange, synchronous ways. A good example is the Dame of Wands card. What I wanted for that card was a woman with a baseball bat. I had known a lady who was a semiprofessional soft pitch softball player. One day I ran into her and said, “I’m ready to take your picture now, of you in your softball outfit.” And she said, “Oh, no. I’m not into that anymore. I’m into figure skating now.”

So I was disappointed. But later that day–by the way, I was a bike messenger while I was doing a lot of this, which gave me a tremendous amount of free time to find locations to shoot–I went into a delicatessen that I went into very often for my lunch, to get a bagel. This was in the early 1980’s. This crazy guy came in while I was in there, made strange noises and gestures, and then left. I was at the checkout counter talking to the lady behind the counter, and I said, “Wow, you must have to deal with a lot of crazies.” And she said, “Let me show you how I deal with crazies.” And she reached beneath the counter and she pulled out a baseball bat. And that is her in the card. Her and her bat.

I found many images happened like that. Sometimes I would struggle. There were images I really wanted to get. For instance, I knew there was a sign somewhere in New York that had a ship and the word Excelsior with a sun above it, and I wanted that for the Sun card. I knew it existed, but for some reason I couldn’t find it. Then one day I was making a delivery and it was July and it was hot and I asked the guy where I was making the delivery if I could please have a drink of water. He said okay, and when I went into his kitchen it had a view out into an air shaft, as many apartments of a certain age in New York do, and he had hung a sculpture of a sun outside his window. To me that said more about the Sun as it relates to New York than any of my previous ideas had, so I used that for the card.

10 of wandsWHY IS THE 10 OF WANDS THAT ENDED UP IN THE DECK NOT THE IMAGE YOU INITIALLY HAD FOR IT?

I had some experiences creating some of the cards where I realized that if I create these images, I’m actually bringing this down on people’s heads. I had experiences doing some of the cards with nastier images where the people in those photographs had crap happen to them. I did everything I could to try to keep people protected from those things, but I came to see that I had to be very, very careful about the images I created.

Also, in the times when I tried to stage the 10 of Wands, I realized that given the technology I had back then, I couldn’t stage it and get all that I wanted in it into one image.

CAN YOU TALK A BIT ABOUT THE UNPLEASANT EXPERIENCES PEOPLE HAD?

5 of swordsMostly people had these experiences before I took the images. I would talk to people who I felt embodied the images, and often I would find out that they had had, or were having, experiences that reflected what I felt the cards meant. The woman who is in the 3 of Swords, for instance, was really going through what you see her going through in that card. I just asked her to get very much into what she was feeling when I took that picture. So in many cases the people who were my models were already going through those things beforehand.

But there was one card–the 5 of Swords–that very much affected how I saw what I was doing and made me change what I was doing. Very shortly after we shot that, all of us who were involved in that shoot experienced things related to it. The person playing the police officer had been arrested prior to that. Then both I and the person playing the man being arrested had very, very bad encounters with the police, him shortly after posing for the picture and me shortly after processing the film. I just couldn’t ignore that. I thought, I’m doing something in this city and I seem to be invoking some things here, and I need to be very careful about what I’m doing. I was very careful after that, and we did safe spaces and banishing or grounding out where needed. And there were some cards where I decided not to use people in the photos at all, like in the 10 of Swords.

10 of swordsDID YOU ALSO FIND THAT PEOPLE WHO POSED FOR THE MORE POSITIVE CARDS FOUND THEIR LIVES BEING AFFECTED IN POSITIVE WAYS?

Yes, Some people felt that it brought good things into their lives.

WHAT CAMERA DID YOU USE FOR THE PROJECT?

I used an itty-bitty single lens Olympus. What I knew from my art background was that if I imposed restrictions on the tools I used, it would force me to do certain things and make things look a certain way. Having that structure was something that was going to help me create. And I did all my own processing and printing. Also, I shot a lot of photographs. For example, I shot two rolls of Quentin Crisp to get that one image on the Strength card.

FUNNY YOU MENTION HIM, AS THAT’S ONE OF MY FAVORITE CARDS. ANYONE WHO WAS PART OF NEW YORK’S GAY SCENE KNEW HIM. HOW DID HIS INVOLVEMENT COME ABOUT?

ScanWhen I was a kid, I’d seen the PBS broadcast of The Naked Civil Servant. [The 1975 movie based on Crisp’s autobiography.] And I thought, “This is a wonderful person.” I ended up reading the book the movie was based on. While I was working for Torch Song Trilogy, he came and was in the audience. Later, when Torch Song moved on to Broadway, he had a show in the same theater. At that point I was working on the photographs for the deck, and I knew that I wanted him for the Strength card. He was an immigrant, he was honest, and he showed strength in a way that summarized everything that strength means to me. And also being strong as it applied to living in New York, because he was an out gay man. So one night I waited until his show was over, and I approached him. At that point I would ambush people I was interested in having pose for me and say, “This is what I’m doing.” And I would have this stack of photographs I had already decided to use on the cards and show them. That’s what I did with him. I said, “I’m doing this project, and I would very much like you to pose for the Strength card.” And he said, “Well, yes, we can do that.” He immediately said yes. He was incredibly gracious.

I ALSO FIND THE LOVERS CARD REALLY INTRIGUING. 

loversOriginally my thought was to have four people–two males and two females–for that card. But as had occurred with some of the other cards, something different happened. There was a woman named Bernadette who wanted to perform as part of an event for an arts organization I was part of. And there was a man named Bert who was also involved in this arts organization. Bernadette came to a meeting of the organization, and when she and Bert were in the same room I realized that they were male and female images of each other. I was friends with both of them, and they both knew about this project I was working on, and I asked them if they would pose for me. They’re both somewhat androgynous, and what’s interesting is that I’ve shown the card to straight guys who immediately assume it’s two guys.

THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT AT FIRST TOO. BUT WHEN YOU REALIZE THAT IT’S NOT, IT BECOMES EVEN MORE POWERFUL.

One thing I have to say is that I give credit to all my models. 125 people volunteered to pose for me, and the images would not be what they are if those people were not who they were and were not able to feel for me and be for me in front of the camera. I cannot say enough good things about the people who posed for me, because they were not by and large professional models. They were just being who they were, and they were able to do that in front of a camera.

I KNO2 of pentaclesW THEY’RE ALL SPECIAL TO YOU, BUT DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE CARD?
All of the earliest cards mean a lot because they opened doors for me. The 2 of Pentacles was the very first one I printed. It made people smile.

ARE THERE ANY CARDS YOU FEEL DIDN’T COME OUT QUITE AS YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED?

I would have liked the contrast to be better in some, like the Magician. But the computers to fix things didn’t exist back then. I hope some day to digitize each image and fix them up.

WHY DID YOU ADD CARDS LIKE THE CHILD AND DAME?

If you look at one of the oldest decks, the Visconti Sforza, you will find, I think, a male and female page, as well as a male and female knight. Also, as a feminist of my era, I wanted there to be a female knight. Having studied many different decks, I knew that I wasn’t doing anything new by adding these cards, I was actually being traditional. The idea of having the zodiac in there was also not unusual.child of cups

YOU MADE SOME OTHER CHANGES TO THE DECK, LIKE SWAPPING THE POSITIONS OF THE WORLD AND JUDGMENT (CALLED RESURRECTION IN THIS DECK). WHY?

When I play tested them with people, and let other people who were not into tarot cards arrange them, that’s how they arranged them. Also remember, the tarot images are pre-Copernicus, and we live in a post-Copernicus world. The way the cards were arranged before is based on pre-Copernian thought about how the universe is set up.

The set we have that we call the Major Arcana is also fairly arbitrary. If you look at the oldest decks, they don’t necessarily look like that. They’re set in stone now, but that’s only because they’ve survived an editing process over time.

The number of cards in a deck, for instance, isn’t necessarily anything mystical or magical. It has to do with how a printer lays out blocks of images in the most efficient manner for the sheets of paper that were available for use at that time. Once I learned these things, it freed me up to do the deck in a way that I felt would be modern and useful.

As I said, I wanted the deck to be therapeutic. I wanted to make a deck that was not occult–there are hidden meanings in many of the images, but I wanted something that somebody who was not familiar with the occult meanings could look at it and go, “I get it.” The same way you would look at a newspaper photograph and go, “I get it.” Because I really love newspaper photographs. A really skilled newspaper photographer can sum up a total story with one picture, and get lots of complex emotions. And my more successful images are the ones where I’ve tried to do that.

What I aimed for was reflecting what the Waite deck did. Because I think the Waite deck did a very, very good job of taking the images away from playing cards to being cards that were really much more psychologically functional.

SPEAKING OF HOW THE CARDS FUNCTION, HOW AND WHY DO YOU THINK THE TAROT WORKS?

With the exception of shallow people who are bored, most people come to divination when they they are having trouble making a decision. They’re in a situation that they want resolved. Somewhere in their minds they have everything they need to reach a decision. However, this information isn’t available to them.

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The card back for the New York Tarot.

I believe that people’s subconscious minds are very good at reading and interpreting people within seconds. Additionally, our unconscious is able to perceive meaning in images in fractions of seconds.
Think of film going at 24 frames per second. The conscious mind can identify an image shown for only 4 frames, 1/6th of a second. But experiments where people are hooked up to stress monitors to detect unconscious responses has shown that our unconscious mind can recognize images displayed for under 1/6th of a second. The technological ancestor of moving pictures and film frames is the flip book: peeling through pages of successive images to to form a moving picture. It is the exact same set of movements that we use when we cut a deck in half and riffle-shuffle the cards together. The deck is effectively a flip-book, a hand-held movie. I believe the questioner’s unconscious mind—the repository of the information that’s blocked—sees images that speak to their condition as they handle the cards, particularly if they use their non-dominant hand and they stack the deck.

I believe the reader reads both the cards and the questioner, and may further stack the deck when they handle the cards. In a good reading, the unconscious minds of both parties cooperate to help people reach resolutions. The cards help both people put into words, and understand, what their unconscious minds have already processed.

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