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Book Review: Sophie Calle, True Stories

Sophie Calle, Room with a View, from True Stories, 2010
Courtesy, the artist and Steidl


Book Review: Sophie Calle, True Stories
True Stories
Sophie Calle
November 2010, Steidl & Partners,
ISBN: 978-3-86930-156-3, 128 pp

Reading and making notes on Sophie Calle’s new publication, I am trying to be attentive, but am distracted with loneliness. Writing and making are difficult. I am living awkwardly with my parents and concerned about money. As Calle put it in a 2007 interview, emotional moments such as these are “banal”; everyone can identify with them, therefore they are hardly the stuff of art. Yet, on its most directly accessible level, Calle’s work has always been about the pain of the everyday. As in my opening gambit, she often operates within the territory of emotion shared, projected publicly between strangers and acquaintances.

Since her early experiments in following strangers around Paris, from 1979 onwards, and photographing friends and visitors sleeping in her bed, documented as The Sleepers (1981), Calle has developed a reputation as a serious conceptual artist, going on to represent France at the Venice Biennale (2007) with an installation processing a recent relationship breakdown curated by her contemporary Daniel Buren. Calle’s status as a respected artist is significant given her attitude to her first works. She claimed in a 2009 interview that The Sleepers became an unintentional work of conceptual art only “when the wife of a critic told him about it. He came along. He said, ‘Is this art?’ and I said, ‘It could be.’” Calle then took notes and photographed the situation, reframing it within critical discourse. Given this tale of stumbling into a prolific performance art practice because she needed “rules”, Calle’s current recognition as a photographer equally strikes a tension between the planned and the surprising.

Sophie Calle, The Divorce, from True Stories, 2010
Courtesy, the artist and Steidl

In “I’m a Photographer!”, the introduction to True Stories (2010), Steidl’s publication celebrating Calle’s reception of the prestigious Hasselblad Award for photography, the artist notes that for her “it is the text that has counted most.” Composing phrases is Calle’s strength, so much so that she collects found photographs and commissions professional photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino to take pictures for her, weaving stories around these borrowed scenes. Yve-Alain Bois (ArtForum, 2000) writes of Calle as being “not interested in photography per se, she's an apprentice sleuth.” Another diversion from the conventional documentary image is the performative aspect of her work, as Johnnie Gratton (Paragraph, 2006) observes: Calle’s project “places the energies of performance and process on at least an equal footing with whatever is destined to emerge as the end product.” Indeed, included in the book are stills from across the artist’s career, including her first book, Suite Vénitienne (1980-96) documenting her stealthy chase of a man to Venice.

The main body of the publication reframes Calle’s earlier book titled True Stories (2002) in this new context of an award-winning photographic retrospective. The True Stories project blurs the boundaries between truth and the made-up in a series of autobiographical text-image pairings, depicting such events as Calle’s disturbing turn as a life model whose drawn image is slashed with razor blades; her various weddings and almost-weddings; and her progress from privileged adolescence to heavily-documented adulthood with the accompanying threats of plastic surgery, negotiating sexuality and meeting fans. Perhaps, then, it is for her extensions of the photographic away from objectivity and into the subjective and fictive realms, as well as for exploring photography’s relationship to text, that Calle deserves this accolade.

Calle’s juxtapositions of short, self-conscious textual compositions and photographic portraiture, or painfully romantic, bodily imagery – especially as presented in the current edition of True Stories - have something in common with the project of British poet Gillian Allnutt. In her 2001 collection, Lintel, Allnutt produced a series of stream of consciousness, seemingly semi-autobiographical responses to a group of female portraits by the early expressionist German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. Allnutt has been praised for the deliberately halting, hesitant quality of these poems that perhaps imitate the broken phrases and awkward silences of trauma victims sharing their stories for the first time. Even Allnutt’s visual arrangements of words on a page are telling, as they alter between sprawling and tightly column-like. Similarly, Calle’s dexterity with the book format allows her to present True Stories as a series of pauses for thought: on the left a perfectly centred paragraph with text describing a memory is surrounded by white space like an enlarged full stop; on the right a photograph displayed as if it had been the trigger for the strange or traumatic story to be uncovered.

Of course, while the majority of Allnutt’s images are found in public galleries, researched, and composed around, Calle’s are often staged, sometimes self-portraits, and always introducing the question of which came first: the picture or the “autobiography”? With such personal artwork, as with that of Louise Bourgeois, the problem of therapy is close at hand. For Calle, “if the work is therapeutic, that is a side effect for which I'm thankful." Whatever her motivations, True Stories is a valuable book that allows us to think about the contemporary meaning of photography outside of purely documentary, conventionally “skilled” or medium-specific practice. In addition, like an emotionally intelligent novelist, Calle extends the available language – both visual and textual - through which we might process difficult events and our own intimate identities.

Sophie Calle, The Other, from True Stories, 2010
Courtesy, the artist and Steidl

Sophie Calle, The Wedding Dress, from True Stories, 2010
Courtesy, the artist and Steidl

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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