The seventeenth century painters who inspire still-life photographer Paulette Tavormina selected their subjects for different reasons. Some celebrated the beauty of nature, or delighted in the luxurious objects that were suddenly available thanks to colonial wealth and global trade. Some chose fruit, wilting flowers or skulls for their symbolism, incorporating them into tabletop allegories about mortality or the fleeting pleasures of worldly goods. In her book Seizing Beauty, published recently by The Monacelli Press, Tavormina is interested in all these ideas, and her compositions are inspired by works she’s studied and admired. She acknowledges her inspiration in her image titles: Her “Lemons and Pomegranates, After J.V.H.,” for example, resembles an arrangement of fruit painted by Jacob van Hulsdonck, and “Lemons and Peony After F.D.Z.” is as symmetrical and dramatically lit as a painting by Francisco de Zurbarán. She also makes compositions that are distinctly her own. As art historian Silvia Malaguzzi notes in her introduction to the book, the photographer adds autobiographical elements—antiques she’s found, some fruit or seashells that give a nod to her family’s Sicilian heritage. While the Old Masters showed off a dazzling ability to render the skin of a peach using brush strokes, Tavormina’s virtuosity is in her meticulously accurate recreations of the warmth and drama of Old Master paintings.
Tavormina sees her still-life photos as a form of storytelling. She writes in the book’s afterword, “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 the eye to the next little narrative that is part of the larger work.”
Tavormina honed her photographic technique while living and working in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and she later worked at Sotheby’s auction house photographing works of art. Other experiences also fed her passion for still life. She writes in the afterword to the book that she’s been a collector since she was a child. Working as a food and prop stylist in Hollywood, she gained the technical expertise to bring imaginary tableaux to life, and to support the authenticity and realism of the film’s narrative. The exquisitely reproduced photos in Seizing Beauty showcase her meticulous attention to detail. —Holly Stuart Hughes