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Calle photographs obsessed with intimate lives

SOPHIE CALLE: A SURVEY

Photographs by Sophie Calle.

At the Institute of Contemporary Art,

through March 11.

Gallery hours are Wednesday & Sunday

11-5, Thursday-Saturday 11-8.

By PAUL GROH

AFTER SEVEN YEARS outside her native Paris, photographer Sophie Calle returned home and began following people around the streets in order to rediscover her city. In this effort, Calle soon learned how much she could ascertain about the lives and habits of her unknowing subjects. She became obsessed with the people she was following and especially the physical details of their existence. Eventually this obsession brought her to Venice where she tracked down and photographed a man she had previously met in Paris. She then published a collection of photographs and writings in her book: Suite Ventienne, Please Follow Me.

Here began Calle's obsession with attaining an intimacy with people while maintaining a cool distance. In her recent photography exhibit, "Sophie Calle: A Survey," Calle explores issues relating to intrusion into people's personal lives. Her format is documentary: black and white, police-like photography juxtaposed with descriptive texts. The result is not necessarily refined or composed, but is instead an intriguing look at Calle's obsessive relationship to her subjects. It is a relationship in which Calle knows her subjects not through their direct existence, but through traces they leave behind.

In The Hotel, Calle, working as a chambermaid in a Venetian hotel learns about the lives of the tenants by going through and photographing their belongings. Like a detective looking for the incriminating clue, Calle scrutinizes every object in the room. She meticulously searches through the tenants' baggage, diaries, and even the garbage to piece together their lives. She makes note of the smallest details such as "a dirty comb with broken teeth" or a "mind-boggling pair of shoes." From her scrutiny she pieces together where the people are from, what they are doing that day, what they like or dislike, and so on. In this work, Calle displays her photographs accompanied by texts describing her findings. In one text, Calle reveals the attachment she feels for the tenant. After he is gone, she writes, "He has left his orange peels in the wastebasket, three fresh eggs on the windowsill, and the remains of a croissant which I polish off. . . . I will try to forget him. . . . I shall miss him."

In another work, L'Homme au Carnet, Calle, after finding an address book, decides to approach the owner through his friends. She contacts the people in the book (over 400) and interviews them in order to piece together the owner's life. She finally ends up knowing as much or more about this man than some of his friends. The piece itself is an account of the weekly findings, both photography and text, which Calle published in the French newspaper Lib'eration.

Through Calle's photography, we begin to realize that people are not independent of their context; that is, people define and derive their identity through the places they live and visit, their friends, and their belongings. At the same time, we see that Calle is unable (or chooses not) to enter a relationship directly, but only through its context. She enshrouds herself in a world of safety where the only threat is that of getting caught. In Calle's world, places and belongings move beyond mere symbols of the person; for Calle, they are the person. From her cool distance, she feels she can control the relationship but, in reality, the person and her obsession with that person control her.

In some of Calle's later, more interesting work, she turns the camera not at other people, but at herself.

In The Shadow, Calle hires a private detective to follow and photograph her for a day. She first gets her hair done "to please him." She then takes him for an exhaustive chase through Paris in a type of flirtatious game. She wants to "show him" the places she loves, such as the park where she received her first kiss. Calle's colorful description of the day is sharply contrasted with the banal photographs and text of the detective. For Calle, the day was imbued with meaning; for the detective, the day was merely reporting the facts.

In one of Calle's most successful works, Autobiographical Stories, Calle again has the camera turned on herself, but this time she has the courage to do it herself. She photographs the things important to her: a white silk wedding dress she wore the first night together with a man she had silently admired since she was a child; a bathrobe her first lover wore that reminded her of her father. Here Calle abandons her documentary approach and instills her photographs with a self-consciously high degree of composure. The photographs are again accompanied by descriptive texts, but now the photographs are no longer literal. They are imbued with a supernatural character in accordance with their personal symbolic meaning. Calle is no longer dealing solely with the relationship between herself and the subject; she now challenges the nature of documentary photography and brings the photographs closer to the viewer.

In another of her more successful works, The Blind, Calle asks people blind from birth "what their image of beauty" is. The responses range from a painting in which the subject says, "I can feel the three masts and the main sail. I often touch it in the evening." to the chilling response "I don't need beautiful images in my brain . . . since I can't appreciate beauty, I've always run from it." In this work Calle juxtaposes unflattering black and white photographs, text, and color photographs of how she interprets their responses. She draws us into the world of the blind person and asks us how we identify with the response as well as her interpretation of that response.

In Calle's later works, one sees considerable maturity compared to her earlier ones. She moves from the realm of self-absorbed obsession to that of photography that includes and questions the viewer. Sophie Calle's best work is yet to come.