Drawing upon 17th Century Old Master Painting Influences

Paulette Tavormina has always been transfixed by the powerful compositions and sophisticated colors of the 17th century Old Master paintings. Her still life photographs, the Natura Morta series in particular, draws references from ‘Francisco de Zurbarán’s dramatic lighting, Adriaen Coorte’s unusual placement of objects, and Giovanna Garzoni’s color palette.’ While her still life photographs recall the sumptuous details from the art of Dutch, Italian, Spanish Old Master painters, they also serve as personal interpretations of timeless, universal themes of life and love, of joy and sorrow.


An Early Introduction to Still Lifes

Having worked in Hollywood sets as a prop specialist, Paulette Tavormina was no stranger to the meticulous detailing that goes into the arrangement and composition of a still life photograph, but it was later in her life where she began taking classes on black and white and studio photography. When Tavormina was living in Santa Fe during the late 80s, she learned how to develop film and attended photographic workshops, where her interest in still life photography was sparked.

Her introduction to the Old Masters’ paintings were through an acquaintance while she was living in Santa Fe. Sara McCarty, who also produced works in the natura morta style, introduced Tavormina to Giovanna Garzoni, the 17th century Italian painter of the Baroque period, and Maria Sibylla Merian, the 16th century botanist who was also one of the very first woman to paint the metamorphosis of butterflies and flowers. “I’d go to her studio and she (Sara McCarty) would be painting deceased birds or wilted flowers by natural light. I just fell in love with it. I couldn’t get enough of the genre” recalls Tavormina of her initial encounter with still lifes.

Pursuing Her Career as a Photographer

Shortly after, Tavormina moved back to New York City, where she returned to working for Sotheby’s, photographing their catalogues, which gave her the opportunity to pursue her career as a photographer. Visiting various museums, Tavormina furthered her familiarity and education on the Old Master paintings, and decided to recreate them in her own way. When asked about why she was allured by the great European painters, Tavormina says that she was ‘struck by their strong emotional resonance, their ability to transcend time and place.

Paulette Tavormina, Peaches and Hydrangeas, After G. G., 2015
Paulette Tavormina, Peaches and Hydrangeas, After G. G., 2015

A Contemporary Take on Old Master Paintings

The ‘classically reminiscent’, still life photographs of Paulette Tavormina, as she describes them, are a contemporary take on the Old Master paintings, through the medium of photography. ‘I’m not creating a painting’ says Tavormina, ‘I’m creating an essence.’ Her delicately executed photographs not only strike the viewer with their powerful compositions, their stillness and sophistication, but also go far beyond in meaning and symbolism. Tavormina further explains by saying; ‘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 the 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.

Eternalizing Her Memory

She uses the medium of photography to capture a single moment of time with click of a shutter button, eternalizing her memory as a visual, while the objects in the arrangements are surrendered to the passage of time – tempus fugit. The Botanicals series, for example, are a floating collage of leaves, buds, stems and insects that evoke the scientific and botanical illustrations of the past century. The series is a photographic canvas filled to the edges and exploding with color, celebrating every detail of nature and life. The ‘rich texture emerges from the black background in a slightly underexposed manner’ which delivers a remarkable visual impact for the spectator. The recurring theme of beauty and decay is present, as blooming plants and flowers are taken from their natural habitat, and are shot against a pitch black background, their beauty fading by each passing moment.

Paulette Tavormina, Botanical VII, Tulips, 2013
Paulette Tavormina, Botanical VII, Tulips, 2013

A Meticulous Operation and Race Against the Clock

Paulette Tavormina’s process of setting up, arranging, and completing a still life photograph is a meticulous operation and race against the clock. While the entire process can take up from 3 days to a week, Tavormina’s work incorporates objects from previous travels and family belongings, allowing for a personalization in the work. Whether a hand picked pomegranate from her Sicilian family home, or an oak tree branch from England, Tavormina selects the perfect piece that will complete her arrangements and tell the story exactly how she imagined it. One of the photographs from her Natura Morta series, [Italian Plums, After G.G., 2015] for example, is filled with Italian plums Tavormina handpicked herself from an orchard in the Pennsylvania countryside. When asked about the careful curation of her photographs she says;

“For me, it’s about relationships. Every component is placed within a relationship to another one—a peony lying its head on a little leaf bed, a leaf propped on the edge of a plate trying to find its balance, two little plums touching each other, apart from the other fruit.”

Paulette Tavormina, Italian Plums, After G. G., 2015
Paulette Tavormina, Italian Plums, After G. G., 2015

A Collector of Objects with Meaning and Mementos

A collector of objects with meaning and mementos, Tavormina spends much of her time in the flower and farmers markets, looking for forms, flowers, and objects. Her love of collecting and rich library of objects from around the world is also an homage to 17th century Europe, a period which is considered the ‘Golden Age’ of global trading. Still life painters of the period ‘incorporated shells, insects, exotic fruits, and flowers found abroad, alongside Venetian glass and Chinese porcelain.Their vignettes served as a tribute to newly discovered corners of the world.’ And in return Tavormina pays tribute to the 17th century Old Masters, by incorporating memorabilia from her own personal experiences.

Interpretations of Timeless, Universal Stories

The beautiful, dark, rich compositions depicted in the still life photographs of Paulette Tavormina serve as interpretations of timeless, universal stories. Tavormina pays homage to the curated placement of objects and extraordinary use of colors seen in paintings by the Old Master painters of the 17th century Europe.She creates and element of softness through the dim use of lighting in her photographs, which gives the images a sense of mystery, and allow them to resemble Old Masters’ paintings, with a 21st century flair. The compositional subtlety and metaphoric complexities seen in her photographs, create mysterious, yet glorious images to study and admire. Having been deeply affected by the Old Masters’ paintings, Tavormina wishes that her work will someday affect others the same way she was struck by the still life paintings of Coorte, Zurbarán and Garzoni. In one of the still life paintings Tavormina often references, there is a Latin phrase included which reads; ‘Eram Quod Es.’ and the translation resonates within Tavormina: ‘Once I was where you are now.’ Paulette Tavormina currently lives in New York, where she continues to create magnetic, mesmerizing fantasies through her still life series.