This interview was originally published at L'Oeil de la Photographie
Paulette Tavormina: “In my photographs, each element has its own allegory”
A series by Holden Luntz Gallery
Paulette Tavormina was born in 1949 in Rockville Centre, New York. She is largely a self-taught photographer well known for her work creating painterly still life photographs. Tavormina’s initial interest in the medium stemmed from her time in the 1980s working on corporate advertising campaigns researching, creating, and styling props for photographs. Becoming intrigued by the medium, she enrolled in courses at the International Center for Photography in New York in 1986.
Then moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, she took classes in photography to perfect her photographic and printing techniques. Combining her passion for the culinary arts with the photographic medium, Tavormina would become a commercial photographer and food stylist shooting countless cooking books while also becoming a prop specialist creating elaborate food scenes for such movies as The Astronaut’s Wife, Nixon, and The Perfect Storm.
Involved earlier in her life in the 1980s with Sotheby’s, Tavormina returned to the auction house as a photographer for the company after a period exploring her ancestral roots in Sicily. Having been introduced by a friend to 17th century Dutch and Spanish still life paintings by such artists as Francisco de Zurbarán and Giovanna Garzoni, they would greatly influence her most well-known series, Natura Morta. By 2008, Tavormina had perfected her lighting and composition for the series and it was first exhibited at Sotheby’s. She currently lives and works in New York City where she continues to create painterly still life photographs.
You said that you were a “collector” before you became a photographer; what drew you to pick up a camera and shoot what you had been collecting?
Yes, I have always loved the “magic of things” that tell a story. In my baskets of found items, everything is a treasure. My grandfather’s dice, coral from Australia, Roemer glass from Bruges, old brass keys from a deserted mansion in Newport and broken Venetian glass.
Why did you feel that the photography should be your medium of choice vs. another medium like painting?
Photography is a way to capture a moment in time and savor it.
Were you ever academically trained as an artist?
In high school I studied graphic design and very much wanted to work as graphic designer in advertising. However, somehow my path never led me there. I pursued art history instead. In the 1980s I took a class at The International Center for Photography in New York to learn how to use a manual Nikon camera and later in Santa Fe took a black and white photography class. I was immediately transfixed by the appearance of an image on paper from a bath of chemicals.
Your pictures are beautiful in their own right, but you admit to being influenced by Old Master still life paintings. Why has this influenced you and your work to such an extent? Do any other photographers or artists influence you as well?
I have long been drawn to 17th Century Old Master Still Life painters such as Giovanna Garzoni, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Adriaen Coorte; in particular Zurbarán’s mysterious use of dramatic light, Garzoni’s masterful compositions and color palette, and Coorte’s unique placement of treasured objects. In the 1990s while living in Santa Fe, a painter friend introduced me to the paintings of Garzoni and Maria Sibylla Merian and thus began my fascination of the genre of paintings entitled Natura Morta.
I love your appreciation for the simple pleasures you find in the midst of the chaotic city, and within your life in general. Why do you think appreciating the simple things is so important?
Sometimes the simplest things in life are the most poignant ones – a kind gesture or word, experiencing the beauty of nature and its mysteries and how they affect us.
In Wayne Andersen’s essay on your work, he talks about the idea of the still life being a vehicle for artistic liberty. Could you expand a little on how the still life grants you this?
When creating a still life I am choosing the objects to tell a story and creating a romantic vignette. For example, in the photograph Lemons and Pomegranates, there is a leaf balancing itself against the antique plate, and the butterfly is delicately perched on a lemon. Each element has its own allegory. These Natura Morta still life images are intensely personal to me as they tell universal stories of the fragility of life and love, the fine balance of emotions, passion, sorrow, and the vulnerability one feels that life and beauty are fleeting – tempus fugit.
Anderson also quotes you as saying, “Being a sentimental person, capturing moments in photography brings me back to past feelings so I can savor them again.” This is something I really identify with, and imagine a lot of other people do as well. Do you believe a memory can live on with only a picture to preserve it?
No, because there are reminders of memories all around us; but memories can be embedded forever in a moment that is a photograph.
You have also worked on many commercial projects including cookbooks, magazines, and movie sets. What has been your favorite project?
Years ago, when I was living in Santa Fe, I worked as a prop specialist for seven Hollywood motion pictures. Working behind the scenes was fascinating especially working on Nixon with Anthony Hopkins, with George Clooney in The Perfect Storm, and Johnny Depp in The Astronaut’s Wife. Manufacturing props and creating lavish historic food scenes was a very exciting and unique experience.
When commissioned by an outside party, are you allowed the same artistic freedom you would have shooting your own Natura Morta? In other words, what is the relationship between your commercial work and your fine art/gallery work?
When I began photographing The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbooks several years ago, they hired me because I was a fine art photographer and they were drawn to my “Old Master” style. They wanted me to photograph in a way that was more artistic than commercial. Sotheby’s Diamonds also hired me to photograph for Sotheby’s Art at Auction publication in which I created a curio vignette amongst their “Ricci” diamond rings with my collections of antiques, butterflies, and Venetian glass.
You talk about your love for cooking originating from your childhood in a Sicilian household. Do you have a funny memory you could share?
When I was growing up, all of my grandparents lived nearby, so Sundays we enjoyed family dinners together. Food was an integral part of our lively conversations; we were always discussing what we would be serving for our next celebration. The tradition continues on with my cousins and siblings – whenever we can, we get together and recreate my grandmother’s Sicilian recipes.
What is your absolute favorite dish to make and/or eat?
Spittinis are small veal rolls stuffed with salted pork and provolone cheese, covered with breadcrumbs, wrapped with bay leaf, and broiled. They are always a special treat and delicious!
Do you think you will transition to other subject matter in the future?
While studying the genre of 17th Century Still Life paintings entitled Natura Morta, I discovered and became fascinated with the Vanitas paintings of that same time period. I will begin a new series based on this genre of paintings. I was inspired by the imagery of 17th Century Old Master still life painters such as Pieter Claesz, Jacob Gheyn, and Harmen Steenwyck, whose works depicted a luscious tableau that spoke in hushed tones of the futility of life. The theme of Vanitas reminds us of the fragility of life, and the certainty of death.
What do you hope people appreciate when they look at your pictures?
The essence of Natura Morta and Vanitas still life paintings lingers with me as I create my photographs, and as one 17th Century painter revealed on a small slip of unfolded paper, “Eram Qvod es” (Once I was where you are now). I hope that years from now someone will stand in front of one of my photographs and be as emotionally touched by them as I have been with the works created so long ago. The stories told in these paintings resonate within me as I too search, gather, and compile objects from my personal collection of flora, fauna, butterflies, and antiques to create romantic vignettes inspired by these Old Masters.
This interview is part of a series conducted by Holden Luntz Gallery, based in Palm Beach, Florida.
Interviewer: Sara Tasini
Holden Luntz Gallery
332 Worth Ave
Palm Beach, FL 33480