Anything But Still

The still-life photographs of Paulette Tavormina are anything but still; on the contrary, they are full of life. Recalling sumptuous details of seventeenth-century Old Master painters such as Francisco de Zurbarán, Adriaen Coorte, Juan Sánchez Cotán, and Giovanna Garzoni, Tavormina’s painterly compositions serve as intensely personal interpretations of timeless, universal stories and themes of of life and love, of joy and sorrow. Having previously worked in Hollywood movie sets as a prop specialist, Paulette Tavormina has been creating still life compositions from early on in her career. Her interest in photography developed later in her life, when she learned how to develop film and attended photographic workshops on black and white studio photography while living in Santa Fe in the late 80s.

The Old Masters

She was introduced to the Old Masters’ painting through a dear friend, Sarah McCarty, who also produced works in the natura morta style. Tavormina was instantly mesmerized by the work of Giovanna Garzoni, the seventeenth-century Italian painter of the Baroque period, and Maria Sibylla Merian, the sixteenth-century botanist who was also one of the very first women to paint the metamorphosis of butterflies and flowers. Shortly after upon her return to New York City, Tavormina began pursuing a career as a photographer working for Sotheby’s to photograph artwork for their catalogues. Her fascination grew further as she continued to familiarize herself with the work of Old Master painters and she decided to recreate these compositions in her artistic vision, and through her photographic lens.

Classically Reminiscent

Since then, Paulette Tavormina has been creating ‘classically reminiscent’ photographs that glow from within, imbued with symbolism and meaning. Striking in their stillness and sophistication, each photograph is a tribute to nature and life, through rich celebrations of color carefully photographed against a black background. The recurring themes of beauty and decay are present at all times; as plants, flowers, insects, fish and birds are meticulously arranged into compositions – freezing their beauty as momento mori artworks. The idea of ‘seizing beauty’ is a core foundation of her work.

Beyond just the beauty, I want the viewer to see as I see, to feel the emotion I feel when a leaf balances just-so, and points to the next little narrative that is part of the larger work. This beauty all around us is fleeting, and yet can be embedded in a perfect moment that is a photograph. Creating these heartfelt vignettes allows me an avenue to explore the intimate moments of my life, to tell the stories of love and loss, of joy and sorrow, all the while feeling grateful for the rich abundance of life, and somehow seizing that beauty.

Paulette Tavormina, Canaries and the Cat, 2024, Archival Pigment Photograph
Paulette Tavormina, Dahlias, Canaries and the Cat, 2024, Archival Pigment Photograph

Fellini and Puccini

Paulette Tavormina continues to explore fleeting time, tempus fugit, in a new body of work, perhaps her most personal yet. She has created a series of photographs that incorporates her two cats, Fellini and Puccini, pictured in various settings surrounded by food, flowers and canaries. The mysterious use of dramatic light, masterful compositions, and rich color palettes are the essential elements of the series. The ragdolls cats, although a fairly modern breed, ‘are endowed with the same elegance and lightness of the angora cat already depicted in the eighteenth century’ writes Silvia Malaguzzi. The interpretation of the cat has held various meanings throughout art history; from the nocturnal hunter to the indecipherable feminine, a symbol of betrayal, and at times a Biblical symbol as Judas’ animal. In Tavormina’s photographs, the protagonist perhaps embodies mischief. In various moments of perfectly captured interactions with its surrounding environment, the feline is at times a thief, an allusion to Clara Peeters’ Still Life of Fish and Cat and at other times a playful character, much like Jean Jacques Bachelier’s Cat and Butterfly.

Paulette Tavormina, Oysters and the Cat, 2024, Archival Pigment Photograph
Paulette Tavormina, Oysters and the Cat, 2024, Archival Pigment Photograph

Unpredictable Characters

Paulette Tavormina spends a lengthy time preparing each composition, seamlessly bringing all the disparate elements together. Once the set is ready, it’s time to introduce the main characters. To Tavormina’s surprise, both Fellini and Puccini very much enjoyed being in front of the camera. She was able to convey the idea of ‘suspension of time’, the ‘frozen moment’, through the anticipation of the feline’s unpredictable actions. In Oysters and the Cat, for example, the set is arranged similar the still life paintings of seventeenth-century; from the stand with two different shapes of glasses often present in Claesz.’ adds Malaguzzi and continues; ‘Heda’s work, to the breadcrumbs, the lemon peeled and the knife with the handle symbolically offered to the viewer and yet, despite the crowded set of objects, the protagonist is clearly only interested in oysters.’ The viewer is looking at a moment suspended; will it act, or will it not?

The Alchemist’s Garden

In addition to the Cats series, Paulette Tavormina was commissioned to photograph the new perfume by fashion powerhouse, Gucci, titled The Alchemist’s Garden. A group of around 15 luxury fragrances by Gucci Beauty, the campaign was ‘inspired by the 17th century Italian Master’s ‘Vanitas’ paintings. Embracing a play of light and darkness, a sumptuous olfactive feast along The Alchemist’s Garden’s banquet table.’

Paulette Tavormina, Gucci, The Alchemist's Garden, Moonlight Serenade, 2024
Paulette Tavormina, Gucci, The Alchemist’s Garden, Moonlight Serenade, 2024

After an intensive two months of back and forth preparation with storyboards and creative planning, the photographic project took place in Europe. Gucci wanted Tavormina to bring her own props to the set, which allowed her to continue the tradition of placing items of personal value or ones with memories. A classical trait of her photography, Tavormina again included details and little secrets within the compositions that only she knew were there. In a photograph for A Floral Verse, there is an  envelope with a rosebud placed atop which she had picked from Jane Austin’s home. In another photograph, she had the Gucci logo created as a red wax stamp crested to seal an envelope. Tavormina took it one step further, and inside the envelope, unbeknownst to anybody on set, she placed a letter she had written to Alessandro Michele inside this envelope.

Paulette Tavormina, Gucci, The Alchemists Garden, A Floral Verse, 2024
Paulette Tavormina, Gucci, The Alchemists Garden, A Floral Verse, 2024

A Collaborative Effort

It was a special occasion as Paulette Tavormina had never worked on a commercial project of this scale. She said; ’Everything I had done in my career up until then, prepared me to be in this enormous photo shoot.’ As she normally works in solitude in her own studio, creating these images for Gucci as part of a large production was an ‘incredible experience’, according to the artist. A collaborative effort, she worked with a Paris advertising agency, florists, prop stylists, Gucci, and bird and butterfly wranglers to get her vision to come to life. Light plays a crucial role in navigating the imagery to convey the feeling of each fragrance. On her relationship with light, Tavormina says;

One of the reasons I fell in love with the Old Masters is because of their sense of light. There’s a mystery about it. Not everything is lit up and perfectly clear. A lot of things in the background are darkened out, other things are prominently lit. But then when I was reading Caravaggio he talks about how he can act as God and have whatever source of light he wants to use. He can light a candle in a certain area in his set-up to paint that light source, but then if he wants to, he can move that candle to paint it another way. So I thought if he can do that, then I can too! As a photographer, it is wonderful to be able to direct and have full control of the imagery to tell a story.

The painterly series of tableaux Paulette Tavormina created for Gucci Beauty sumptuously captures the full spectrum of nature, from flowers to fruits and butterflies while incorporating elements from Old Master paintings such as textiles and food.

Paulette Tavormina, Gucci, The Alchemist’s Garden, The Heart of Leo, 2024
Paulette Tavormina, Gucci, The Alchemist’s Garden, The Heart of Leo, 2024

Fantastical Compositions Continued

Paulette Tavormina continues to create fantastical compositions alluding to seventeenth, eighteenth-century sensual photographs that are beautiful to look at. Combining recurring themes with explorations of new ideas, she elevates the painterly sophistication within her work. Currently working between Connecticut and New York City, the work of Paulette Tavormina has been included in museum, corporate, and private collections and has been exhibited in Paris, London, Moscow, Lugano, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, and Chicago. In November 2010, Tavormina was awarded the Grand Prix of the Festival International de la Photographie Culinaire, a juried photography competition held annually in Paris, France and in 2016 she was awarded Jackson Pollack Foundation grant.