C enturies after the Ancient the illustrious still-life tradition has undergone a transformation from one of the lowliest of art forms to one of our most significant. While still life— also known by the Italian term natura morta —simply refers to an image of inanimate objects, it embodies far more than a random selection of fruit and flowers. Indeed, during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, the vanitas paintings of the Old Masters presented perishable food stuff and blooms as emblems of life and death. By the 19th century, still life had become an essential part of an artist’s practice and for some, their entire focus. Modernist Édouard Manet (1832–83) famously believed that: “A painter can say all he wants to with fruits, or flowers, or even clouds.” Today it continues to be a rich seam not only for painters, but for photographers attracted by its drama and excited by the potential of applying contemporary techniques to age-old themes—the likes of Frederick G. Tutton (1887–1930) and Roger Fenton (1819–69) experimented with photographic still lifes more than a century and a half ago, but these four very different artists are keeping the tradition alive and striving to make the everyday extraordinary… Egyptians first daubed images of crops, fish, and meat on the walls of their tombs,
Paulette Tavormina PRECISION TECHNIQUE
It’s no easy feat to create the elaborate tableaux at the center of Paulette Tavormina’s still lifes. The New Yorker will trawl farmers markets for hours looking for particular blush-pink roses or just- ripened figs. Then it is a race against the clock to arrange, light, and shoot each composition before it begins to decay. But it is that tension that is the essence of her photography. “I’m looking to capture that perfect moment in time before it disappears,” she explains. “I’ll take hundreds of photographs to get one shot. It has to have the right feeling, the right mood.” Tavormina’s love of still life was nurtured through a friendship with the painter Sarah McCarty, whom she met while living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I’d go to her studio and she 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.” From then on she would seek out still lifes—and especially the work of 17th-century Old Masters including Giovanna Garzoni (1600–70)—wherever she went. It would be several decades however before all Tavormina’s ideas would coalesce in her photography. In the meantime she enjoyed a successful career as a props specialist in Hollywood, where she created complex food scenes for films including The Astronaut’s Wife , Nixon , and The Perfect Storm . Then, in 2008, while working at an auction house, photographing items for its catalogs, she was invited to exhibit in a staff art show. “I had just made my first still-life image, Fish Bone , and I put it up along with a couple of other photos. The first person to buy one was one of the directors. Everything went from there…” Today, with numerous exhibitions and two books to her name, Tavormina remains as passionate about her subject as ever. “I hope the photographs I create will affect someone as deeply as the Old Masters have affected me,” she says. paulettetavormina.com
Opening spread: Untitled (#41) 2011 ( left ) and Untitled (#48) 2011 by Bas Meeuws (see page 85). Opposite: Pronkstillife With Pheasant by Jeroen Luijt, who is inspired by the Dutch Old Masters found in his home town of Amsterdam. Below: Paulette Tavormina’s complex Flowers, Fish and Fantasies III 2012 ( left ) and Vanitas III, The Letter, After P.C. 2015 (right).
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