Assignment 2 : Context, Influences and Research

I described in the previous post how the idea for this Assignment I Thought I Saw You the Other Day, came about. The blurry night photograph I took in Brighton, a title, and my idea to portray the ending of a relationship through the blog of the young man.. I wrote myself a biography for him so I could ‘get into character’ and hopefully be more authentic. I also had an idea about the girl, but I didn’t want to get myself too involved with her. If I had she would have started to express her own point of view and then I’d be betwixt and between. By the time I created the first new blog post from “Paul” I was beginning to wonder why I chose a male subject and why those particular names.

Why a Young Man?

I was an only child – at least until I was nearly 19 –  and, as both parents worked, spent quite a lot of time on my own. I never got really lonely but often wished I had an older brother. Now I know that when I was 13 or so part of my thinking was that he would bring his friends home with him but it was also to do with having someone close who was like but not like me. He would understand my way of thinking and stand up for me when necessary. Someone to look up to; similar, but different enough to be interesting.  A  reflection of me in a slightly distorted mirror. They used to say I was a bit of a tomboy! Fortunately there were a few boys, a bit older than me, who were happy for me to tag along sometimes, watch them play tennis, and listen to bicycle talk. I’ve also often wondered what I would be like if I had been born male. What kind of man would I be? Here was a chance to begin an exploration.

What’s in a Name?

The surname Dumont belonged to one of my great-grandmothers before she married. I think my grandfather Chattle (the original name was Chattell) must have been ahead of his time and wanted to honour his mother because he gave his oldest son the middle name of Dumont, and then the tradition continued to one son from each of his children. I have lots of questions around this but that’s another story. I played around with first names in my head and out came Paul Dumont. I needed a name to suit a girl with red-gold hair and dark hazel eyes. Laura seemed to fit as did the surname McIntyre. There must have been something rumbling around in my subconscious because then I remembered a film from long ago.


Laura (1944) is an American Film Noir Thriller. The young detective, Mark, is investigating the murder of a beautiful advertising executive, found dead with a shotgun blast to her face before the beginning of the film. Mark gets to know her through the testimony of her friends and reading her letters and slowly begins to fall in love with her. I must have seen it on TV as an adolescent and remember being enthralled by the story, Gene Tierney’s beautiful face, and the music to the film. The novel from which the film came was written by a female author, Vera Caspary, an early feminist I think – “… her novels effectively merged women’s quest for identity and love with murder plots. Independence is the key to her protagonists…..” (Wikipedia) 

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a Website  and YouTube series  by John Koenig who invents and portrays new words to describe emotions that have no words.


Paul’s theme tune could only be Frank Sinatra with Goodbye from his 1958 album Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely. Paul can’t understand why Laura likes Ed Sheeran but Photograph the song he wrote reminds Paul of her.


A friend introduced me to the novels of Ruth Ozeki.  A Tale for the Time Being is a story in counterpoint. One of the characters, Nao, who is Japanese, is never seen but we read her story through her diary which is washed up, contained in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on a small Canadian island and found by Ruth. We don’t know if the diary is fact or fiction and weave backwards and forwards between Nao (pronounced “Now”), Ruth, past and present, Japan and Canada. See here also:- There is such congruity for me here because the OCA Photograph Student project is The Nearest Faraway Place, and our individual images have been weaving backwards and forwards across the world for around eighteen months, safely contained in a Hello Kitty lunchbox.

My daughter and I exchange books and a while ago she gave me Us  by David Nicholls. I didn’t actually read it until last week and there was a shock of recognition because the novel is about a couple, Connie and Douglas, who could well be Paul and Laura if they had stayed together, got married, had a child and then, twenty-five years later, Laura decides she wants to end the marriage. “Better it’s ended now” says Paul as he looks at this book that Laura has left behind, “Maybe Laura made her decision after reading this”.


Basic foundation

In Assignment 2 I am seeking to portray an obsessive search and yearning for an absent person and also to evoke this through Paul’s short blog posts and the images ‘he’ uses to convey his difficult to express feelings. I’ve written about Duane Michals and Sophie Calle here  . What’s interesting to me at the moment is the extent to which they both use text. Duane Michal’s handwriting, often within the image, is usually brief – “Captions tell you what you are looking at, but my texts tell you what you can’t see” (Interview 2013 in SelfSelector).   “This photograph is my proof” raises so many questions regarding fact and fiction; memories true or false.

Conversely Sophie Calle often seems to use images as illustrations to the text so the process is reversed. I’ve just been looking at an earlier book of hers – True Stories (1994), 46 short stories, more like vignettes, each with one image. All contained in a small 4×7 ½ book which is good to hold and leaf through. Because the stories are all different so are the images so there’s no need for coherent sequencing of the stories. The images have equal weight with the stories.

Other Photographers

When I first contacted my tutor with my idea for this project he reminded me of the work of Laura Stevens. In her series Another November  Stevens explores the experience of losing love by directing other women to portray the evolving circumstances and stages of adjustment. There is a lot of shadow in the images with the women’s faces subtly lit to show their expressions. Much of her work has an autobiographical sense even without self portraits. I admire her work but, at this stage (and given my lack of enthusiasm for portraiture) I am seeking to evoke a mood/atmosphere in other ways.

Uta Barth –  Her work is about the act of seeing and to achieve this she removes the subjects and sets the image in an anonymous yet familiar setting. In her earlier works such as Field (1995-1998) and Ground (1994-1997she focuses on where the subject would be, clears away anything personal to herself from which the viewer can construct a narrative and leaves the background which is usually blurred. In a subtle way, Uta Barth uses that blur to ask the viewer a question: is the world around us only important because it is around us? Is our physical environment only worthwhile as a backdrop for ourselves, or the things we want to focus on? By drawing our attention to the blurred foreground and background and away from what would be the clear subject, Barth is reminding us that the world and everything in it exists independent of us and independent of anything to do with us. The world is NOT just our background. (Greg Fallis on Utata ) .

I don’t think I’m yet an experienced or sophisticated photographer to achieve this kind of work but if does fascinate me and remains at the back of my mind. It’s a way of using the camera as seeking to focus on something unclear to make it come into view. I am a person who seeks to simplify complexity to bring clarity and meaning and so Barth’s work really challenges me because I keep on looking. My fellow students John and Stephanie create work that reflects Uta Barth for me.

Still-Life Photography:

There was something about Paul’s blog that evoked an unexpected response in me. I wanted to create still-life photographs to somehow fix the memory of Laura in my mind. It’s been quite a long time since I photographed still-life and, to remind me I obtained the book Stilled : Contemporary Still Life Photography by Women (Ed Newton & Rolph, 2006). This is the third publication in a series by IRIS a research centre at Staffordshire University that focuses on projects within the field of contemporary women’s photographic practice. I found this book a wonderful source of inspiration and re/discovered photographers such as Sarah Lynch (the starkness of objects suspended from wire in Circles and Suspended Realities) , Laura Letinsky (pale pastel fruit, remains of a gentle feast, from her series Hardly More than Ever) and Martina Mullaney – one of whose recent series is Dinner for One looking at the loneliness of dining alone see here . Additionally I looked again at the work of Alison Bettles  and Alison Stolwood  whose work I saw at the Brighton Festival last year and wrote about here . They both set their subjects (from nature or man-made objects) in studio backgrounds and create portraits of them.

Some interim thoughts

There were other photographers I looked at and have recorded on my reference list, but those above were a major influence for me. I certainly don’t think that anything I have produced can approach the work of any of them at this stage, but it was the idea of their work, and that it was something I might be able to achieve in time that enthused me. I am also interested in the fact that all but Duane Michals are women photographers and so the feminine aspect has crept into the Assignment as a counterpoint to Paul’s blog. I will write more on this when writing about the Assignment images next. I am still pondering upon the relationship between text and image and how the balance is achieved in respect of the aims of a project. It also occurred to me that I have rarely looked at any photographs without knowing something about the photographer from their artist statements, journal articles etc. this leaves me with the question of the sense that the viewers make coming to images cold as it were – no text or explanation.

18th April 20153


Calle, S True Stories (1994) Actes Sud
Ozeki, R A Tale For the Time Being, (2013) Canongate Books Ltd
Newton & Rolph (Ed), Contemporary Still Life Photography by Women, 2006, Ffotgallery Wales Ltd, Cardiff
Nicholls, D, Us, (2014), Hodder & Stoughton

Laura (1944) Film, Directed by Otto Preminger, USA 20th Century Fox in Source Magazine


14 thoughts on “Assignment 2 : Context, Influences and Research

  1. This is such a complex exploration, Catherine, I’m glad you say that you try to simplify complexities! There are many thought-provoking threads in your journey and research. Super ideas!


  2. Interesting post indeed Catherine, I like how you always manage to synthesized so well where you are conceptually.
    I see that we are photographing under the same influences!
    I am looking forward to see the whole project.


    • I’m pleased it made sense for you. Re photographing under the same influences – that’s one of the wonderful advantages of reading others’ blogs and vice versa because there is an exchange of dialogue and influence that widens my compass.


  3. A note of correction; the box is an “Octonauts” 🙂 I think writing in the first person narrative is incredibly interesting, like acting you need to become that person, inhabit their skin and find their voice. That is certainly happening here as you develop the narrative that Paul inhabits.
    I am amazed that I haven’t looked at Uta Barth’s work before – I have only heard the name, but a quick look from your link suggests a lot of common ground, thanks for that reference.


    • Well fancy that! I was sure it was a Hello Kitty lunchbox – guess that was because I wanted it to be so I allowed myself free rein again.
      Regarding narrative. I’ve realised that something odd has happened because, in creating some of the images as a response to Paul’s blog, I’ve realised that something very feminine (more feminine than me) has crept into them without me being fully conscious of what was happening.
      Pleased you like Uta Barth’s work.


    • I remember when I completed Assignment 5 of TAOP that my tutor asked me to write about my influences. I realised I hadn’t done that and had to dig deep to find them! I’ve noticed a definite shift in the past couple of years and that now tutors are expecting us to provide the context as a routine and, of course, that’s what this particular model is very much focussing on. At least I’m more prepared now!


  4. Pingback: Assignment 2 : I Thought I Saw You The Other Day | Context and Narrative

  5. Pingback: Revisiting Assignment 2 | Context and Narrative

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