a YIELD Magazine Interview with Paulette Tavormina

Snite Museum of Art
Jul 29, 2016 12:08AM

Interview first appeared in YIELD Nº1, the Snite Museum of Art's online magazine searching for the collectable in the digital age of photography.

When were you first aware of people collecting your work? It began around seven years ago, when I entered three of my photographs in the annual employee art show at Sotheby's. One of the top executives, who is Dutch, fell in love with Fishbone and became the first person to purchase one of my fine art photographs. I received lots of encouragement from my colleagues at Sotheby's, where I was working photographing their catalogues. I created a website and wrote to Robert Klein Gallery, asking if he would be willing to show my work. Robert Klein wrote back almost immediately and said he would love to add me to his roster of artists.  My life changed in an instant!

A couple of months later, the gallery included my photographs in a group show in their Boston gallery and also exhibited them at Paris Photo and AIPAD New York, two major photography fairs. Things snowballed from there, and other galleries were soon keen to show my work: Robert Mann Gallery here in New York, Holden Luntz in Palm Beach, March in San Francisco, Beetles & Huxley in London, Polka Galerie in Paris, and others. People became really interested; it was just one of those happy, perfect storms where one thing led to another.

How did you get involved in photography? In the early 1980s, I was working for a small public relations company when my boss asked me to photograph the flautist, Jean-Pierre Rampal after he finished a concert.  I had only a small Olympus clamshell camera with the pop-up flash. All the other photographers there had professional cameras with big flash units, and there I was with my little Olympus. I got the picture, but I thought that if they need me to do this again I should get better equipment and learn how to use it. So I enrolled in a course at the International Center for Photography and bought a 35mm Nikon FE2. I shot all over New York, learning how to work with f-stops, apertures and speeds.

After moving to Santa Fe in 1987 and working in an American Indian art gallery, I enrolled in a course in black and white photography and learned how to develop film - placing the paper in the chemicals and seeing the image appear was magic. I was hooked.

A friend of mine, who was an American Indian art dealer, asked if I would be able to photograph his collection of historic Cochiti pottery for a book he wanted to publish. I didn't know how to do studio lighting, so I called Reid Callanan, director of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. They didn't offer a class in studio technique at the time, but he recommended David Michael Kennedy. He lived out in the countryside, in Cerrillos where they shot "Young Guns".  So there I went for four days with this fragile, very expensive pottery. We set up strobes and used his Hasselblad camera and produced photographs that were good enough for the book.  Afterwards, I shared a studio where I photographed historic Indian pottery and Navajo jewelry for almost ayear.

In one of the classes at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops we were encouraged to specialize. I grew up in a Sicilian family; my grandmother and my mother were great cooks and at the Thanksgiving dinner table we would discuss our Christmas dinner. The family experience often centered on food - "I love still life and I love food," I thought, and so I decided to specialize in photographing still life and food.

That's how I became a photographer.

Paulette's butterfly collection

Can you tell us about your experience working in the film industry? While in Santa Fe I wondered whether I could find work as a still photographer for the movies. I failed to get the job but was hired as a movie extra in Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman. I met an amazing crew of people, including the prop master. Then the Hollywood studios hired me to work with him on seven movies and that's when I really developed my propping expertise. For a movie you have to be very authentic. There are multiple takes, so if I had to create one prop I had to create a dozen of them, just in case. For the movie The Astronaut's Wife with Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron, the designer who was Dutch, planned a big food scene to be shot in the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. For inspiration I watched Babette's Feast and The Age of Innocence. After watching these and other historic movies, I created a Dutch still life scene, complete with pheasants, quails, gigantic artichokes, papayas and fruits and flowers. I went down to Chinatown and bought twenty-five quail, cooked them with little rosemary twigs and set them in puff pastries. I also poached several large salmons and arranged all the elements to look like a Dutch painting. For Oliver Stone's movie, Nixon I created 200 protest signs, food scenes on the Sequoia yaught, Nixon's resignation letter – all requiring research at the Yorba Linda Library.

I think that all of the research I did during my movie career helped me become very resourceful. Working with food and making props and how it should look on set was an important education.

When did you come back to New York? In 2001 just before September 11th, I traveled to Sicily and discovered relatives that I hadn't known existed. I went to language school and stayed in Sicily for quite some time.  As much as I loved Sicily, I decided that I needed a permanent home and chose to move back to New York. I immediately started working at Sotheby's, photographing items for their auction catalogues. The first things I photographed were for their Collectibles catalogue with Babe Ruth's baseball mitts, Lou Gehrig's jersey, Joe Frazier's robes and baseball bats. I also photographed fine art photographs and contemporary art.

Can you elaborate on what has refined your aesthetic? When I moved to New York, in 1977, I started working for the Sotheby Parke Bernet auction house.  I was constantly surrounded by beautiful works of art—it was like working in a rotating museum.  I think that my aesthetic has been hugely influenced by my years working at Sotheby's. I loved viewing the paintings in the Old Master department as they stood on easels, or were being examined by clients or were simply on exhibition. I fell in love with this genre of paintings and the more I saw, the more I wanted to see and the more I wanted to educate myself.

I also became fascinated by the stories behind the Old Master paintings. In Dutch paintings of the 1600's Golden Age you see life depicted in a rustic, simple way, with items such as a jug of milk, some bread, pewter plates. Then, as the Dutch expanded their trading fleet, all kinds of goods were imported into Holland.  As they prospered, their paintings depicted more lavish subjects. Beautiful tapestries appeared in the paintings, glassware from Venice, exotic lemons, colorful parrots, and shells from foreign countries. As the culture evolved, they wanted to depict their wealth and show who they were and how they had prospered. Then there was, of course tulip mania, a fad for beautiful tulips. The flowers were so prized and so expensive that a single tulip would go from one artist to another, to be painted. This wonderful cultural history of the Dutch, their business and prosperity is interwoven in the art.  And of course I fell in love with Vermeer.

I so loved still life paintings and would have loved some to adorn my walls at home - but they were well out of my price range! So I decided that on the weekends I would create my own still life scenes to photograph. The first one was Fishbone. I bought the fish, had it filleted and took the flesh off. I bought some bread and a Venetian glass and set up the composition. Creating such scenes is what I did pretty much every weekend. I would then show the images to my friends in the photography department at Sotheby's - they were very encouraging. All I did in my spare time was to focus on photographing and pouring through books, going to museums, seeking out still life paintings and educating myself.  When I go to Paris sometimes I take the train to Brussels and Bruges just to find beautiful Dutch and Flemish paintings.

flowers used in photographs

When creating your "Old Master" photographs, do you change anything? Is there anything in the images personal to you? I usually put a lot of personal objects in my photographs. There are little snails I brought back from Sicily - I found them in the garden of my newly found family in Palermo. The dragonfly I found upstairs on a windowsill. I delight in putting quirky things in my photographs. There's a little honeybee in Lemons and Pomegranates from my brother's garden in Connecticut. There are secret details and vignettes that I incorporate. In one of my photographs, my reflection is there. It was only because it was very, very late at night and I had put on my long, white nightgown, and then taken one last shot. I didn't realize I was in the image until the next day when I looked on the computer monitor.

Do you ask yourself what each element means?  Do you want viewers to ask themselves the significance of a leaf almost touching the rim of the saucer? My series Flowers, Fish, and Fantasies of 2013 was inspired by an exhibition of Old Master paintings at Sotheby's. There was very large painting by Gerard van Spaendonck with flowers and a goldfish bowl. I became obsessed with the idea.  I went out and bought goldfish and a ten-gallon tank and spent the summer working on the series. I was having a difficult summer and felt like a fish out of water. I decided that the one fish would be escaping, and photographed the goldfish flopping on the tabletop.  Afterwards I thought, yes, that's exactly how I felt at the time.

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. This beauty all around us is fleeting, and yet can be embedded forever in a perfect moment that is a photograph.

Have you continued your work in commercial photography? While building my fine art portfolio, I have continued to work as a commercial photographer.  In recent years, I have photographed four cookbooks, most recently The Del Posto Cookbook, which will be published this Fall and before that, three cookbooks with the Fabulous Beekman Boys. I've also photographed for publications such as National Geographic and The New York Times.

What I love about being a fine art photographer is that it allows me to create my own personal imagery. My most recent series, Vanitas, will appear in the book Paulette Tavormina: Seizing Beauty, published by The Monacelli Press in April, 2016.

interview & photography by Mike Rippy | october 19th, 2015 

–YIELD magazine

Snite Museum of Art