Reinvigorating the New Possibilities of the Traditional Painting Trope

Initially trained in commercial photography, working for an auction house and then for food styling magazines, Paulette Tavormina uses her practical skills and fascination with Seventeenth Century Old Master’s paintings to create mesmerizing, dramatic images that question the transient nature of the still life and uses her photographic skills to reinvigorate the new possibilities of the traditional painting trope.

Natura Morta

The series ‘Natura Morta’ explores the still life in a new capacity. Inspired by the intense and dynamic paintings from the Baroque period, Tavormina treats her images very much in the manner of a painter, using techniques the masters used themselves like the use of “dramatic lighting, masterful compositions and color palettes, and the unique placement of treasured objects”. These are techniques used by Giovanna Garzoni, Francesco de Zurbaran, and Adriaen Coorte that Tavormina acknowledges as her biggest influences, as well as Georg Flegel who inspired this particular piece. She tries to adhere to the guidelines they followed with the preciseness and technical tact of her own vision.

Paulette Tavormina, Figs, After G.F., 2009, Archival Pigment Photograph, Mounted on Black Sintra

Figs, After G.F.

Tavormina’s work has such resonant imagery and depth of concept, stemming from a passionate study of art history, particularly of the Dutch Golden Age. Her work in culinary photography has prepared her to expertly arrange and capture the reigning motifs of the time; a precious container, raw unadulterated figs and the omnipresent symbol of life and nature, snails on the tree and a dragonfly perched on a fruit. Tavormina’s conscious effort to study the Old Masters and use their methods, through the considerate gathering of objects and their arrangements, which was considered a way to measure an artist’s skill, begin a conversation on the use of this imagery, the passage of time and the symbolism of each element, then and now. Does it have the same meaning to use a stoneware jug in an image as it did back then? Or how about picking up fruit from a local market in NYC? In the Dutch Golden Age, Still Lifes’ presented the wealth that Dutch trade had amassed and the diverse new goods they had gathered. Perhaps Tavormina raises some questions about our position as a dominant force in global commerce, our possessions and their provenance, and our domestic settings that house them.

Symbolism in Tavormina’s Pictures

Nevertheless, Tavormina’s pictures always preserve a dignity that display a love for the discipline and an intimacy that reads as more autobiographical. Tavormina refers to the symbolism in her work:

“Figs express my Sicilian family history – my grandfather’s original tree was grafted and given to my father and that tree was grafted and given to my brother.”

The theatrical use of chiaroscuro and light direction, the dynamic composition of the figs that represent fulfilment of earthly pleasures, the cracked walnut pieces on the surface that stage the traces of human activity, and the living creatures gathered by the artist in Palermo which represent the proximity of ripeness to decay, surely display Tavormina’s understanding of a classical ‘Natura Morta’ composition. The multigenerational connection of cultural value and history is apparent in her work and the photographer consciously chooses to preserve and expand their inheritance. The pictures conserve the histories and skills of the antecedent painters she so admires, the photographs continued inheriting a trompe l’oeil posture. Tavormina bridges a connection to our past history and in her contemporary oeuvre’ is living proof of the adage that what was old can be new again.


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