‘The magic of objects’

Her still life photos, a riff on famous paintings, use real fruits and flowers

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / November 24, 2010

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Q. Paulette Tavormina — your name sounds kind of Sicilian. Is it coincidence that you’re traveling in Italy now?

A. It is not a coincidence. All my grandparents were born in the same little village, Menfi, in Sicily. I came here for the first time nine years ago to “find my roots’’ and found many cousins that I come back to visit every year. I also lived in Taormina on and off for a few years and love my friends and the Sicilian life here.

Q. The still life photographs in your show riff on famous still life paintings by people like Cotan, de Heem, and Zurbaran. But they’re real fruits and flowers arranged by you. What is it about still life that gets your imagination going?

A. Still lifes remind us of the passing of time, the preciousness of life. And they tell so many stories about the history and the life of a place and time — for instance, in Holland, the first still life paintings were of bread, simple utensils, modest objects. As they began to prosper in the Dutch Golden Age, the paintings depicted their newfound wealth through exotic fruits, Venetian glass, tapestries, and so on. I have always been fascinated with the magic of objects, old master still life paintings, photography, and culinary delights and have combined these to create my “Natura Morta’’ series.

Q. Where do you source your subjects — the fruit and vegetables, and also the insects and bugs?

A. I love to go to farmers’ markets to find out-of-the-ordinary vegetables, fruits, and flowers. I lived in Santa Fe for many years and began appreciating the colors and shapes and textures of heirloom and other unusual varieties. Finding bugs and insects is a whole other matter. Sometimes I am lucky and find butterflies, lady bugs, and dragonflies on the streets of New York — amazingly enough, intact.

Q. How much work goes into setting up the photograph, and how much into making adjustments in the printing process?

A. Sometimes I can work on a photograph for one week, to get the lighting just right. But then I have to buy new vegetables or flowers because they become a bit . . . too dead. I make very few adjustments afterward, just little highlights here and there, and cleaning up specks on a table. I work with a wonderful lab in New York.

Q. Why photography? Is there something unusual about the medium you’ve fallen for?

A. Being a sentimental person, photography is a way that I can capture a moment and return to it.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


39 Newbury St., Boston, 617-267-7997