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Breathtaking Still Life Photography Inspired by Old Masters

Photographer Paulette Tavormina captures the ethos of classical masterpieces

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“The Old World is very important to me. You see the evolution of society—there’s a thread woven between the past and the present.”
—Paulette Tavormina

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Zebra Finches and Tulips, 2017. Still art photograph by Paulette Tavormina.

When Paulette Tavormina discovered still life paintings, she was taken aback by their beauty and intensity. She could tell that the artists were depicting their own lives.

Tavormina was so inspired by the Old Masters paintings that she began to specialize in still life photography, turning her passion for antique objects and paintings into a profession.

In approaching her photography, Tavormina follows the style and composition of classical still life paintings while also incorporating her own experiences.

“Creating these heartfelt vignettes allows me an avenue to explore the intimate moments of my life—to tell stories of love and loss, joy and sorrow, while also feeling grateful for the rich abundance of life,” she says.

Audiences have embraced Tavormina’s reinterpretation of still life photography. Her artwork is showcased in museums and private collections around the world and has been featured in magazines and cookbooks. Tavormina has also written two books on her still life photography: Seizing Beauty and Natura Morta.

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Dahlias & Figs, 2021. Tavormina’s photography features butterflies, bugs, and other creatures she collects from taxidermists.

A fish out of water

Classical paintings play an essential role in Tavormina’s photographic inspiration.

One time, she saw an exhibition of Old Masters paintings at Sotheby’s in New York. One still life by Dutch painter Gerard Spaendonck caught her attention. It was a large canvas depicting beautiful flowers and a fishbowl.

The painting inspired her to feature a fish in her still life photographs.

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Flowers, Fish and Fantasies III, 2012. Tavormina didn’t realize there was a halo of water droplets around the escaped fish until after her photography shoot.

She thus began her preparation process, which she follows for most of her photographs. It starts with research—visiting museums and poring over books of 17th and 18th century still life painters. After this, she has a better understanding of her image’s composition.

The next step is to look for props. Tavormina visits farmers’ markets, flea markets, and antique shops until she finds the items she needs.

“Whether it’s a wilted flower, a rotting fruit, or a beautiful butterfly, the elements create a story,” she says.

For her Spaendonck-inspired work, Tavormina bought peonies, lilacs, and a 10-gallon tank with goldfish, but she felt she was missing one coveted item—an antique bowl for the fish to swim in.

“I didn’t want a perfect bowl. I wanted a crack in it because I wanted the fish to come out of the bowl,” Tavormina says.

She got her wish in an antique store in Essex, Massachusetts. There, she discovered a fine Delft bowl with a crack in the upper lip, a perfect place for fish to escape.

When the day of the shoot came, she was ready to capture her images.

“I was shooting as fast as I could with my strobes. I didn’t realize until I looked on the computer that the tail of the fish had made droplets of water in a circle,” she says.

Looking at her still life photography, she realized they were a metaphor for her inner life.

“What you’re feeling or going through somehow comes out like a metamorphosis,” she says. “It was a difficult summer for me. I didn’t consciously realize what I was creating until after I finished the series of photographs. But that’s how I was feeling—like a fish out of water.”

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Vanitas VI, Reliquary, After D.B., 2015. Tavormina explores themes of life and death as part of her Vanitas collection.

Old World inspiration

As a little girl, Tavormina gravitated to antiques, fascinated by the rich stories behind them. This passion for history stayed with her.

“The Old World is very important to me. You see the evolution of society—there’s a thread woven between the past and the present,” she says.

The same familiar connection to history emerges when she looks at the works of still life masters such as 17th-century artists Francesco de Zurbarán, Giovanna Garzoni, and Adriaen Coorte.

“I’m fascinated by Zurbarán’s mysterious use of dramatic light, Garzoni’s masterful compositions and colour palette, and Coorte’s unique placements of objects,” she says.

One of Tavormina’s still life photography collections is Vanitas, meaning the vanities. In it, she depicts skulls, butterflies, maps, and jewellery to express humankind’s most thought-provoking questions about existence.

Skulls often symbolize spiritual themes in classical works, such as the swift passage of time, the fragility of life, and man’s mortality. “As humans, we accumulate wealth, but we can’t take these worldly possessions with us,” she says.

Tavormina hopes her photographic works will continue to inspire people long after she’s gone.

“Years from now, I hope my photographs will affect someone as deeply as the Old Masters’ paintings have affected me,” she says.

“In one of these paintings, the artist included the phrase, ‘Eram Qvod Es.’ The translation of this Latin phrase resonates within me: ‘I was once where you are now.’”

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 112

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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