Sophie Calle has a long history of being a photographic voyeur. In 1979, she invited strangers to sleep in her Paris bed — and many did: Men and women, naked and drooling, with their arms and legs in distended positions, often asleep but occasionally awake and staring directly at Calle. In 1983, Calle found an address book on a Paris street, and instead of returning it to its owner — a filmmaker named Pierre Baudry — she contacted scores of his friends for interviews and picture-taking. Her goal: Paint an intimate portrait of a man she never intended to meet herself. Baudry threatened to sue Calle over the project, but she went ahead with it anyway.
To her credit, Calle also turns the lens on herself, inviting people to look at her own trials and tribulations. In 1994, as part of the book and exhibit Talking Pictures: People Speak About the Photographs that Speak to Them, Calle offered a simple Polaroid headshot of her wearing a black scarf, which she said covered a blood-like line on her neck. The close-up was dark and dispiriting — a complicated reminder, Calle admitted, of a sexual attack that she'd experienced in earlier years.
“I was strangled twice,” Calle wrote for the exhibit. “The first time in Guatemala by a man who attempted to rape me. I simulated I was dead to get out of it, and he reacted by running away. Again in Paris, a man attacked me in the street by grabbing me around the neck. After that, I have become completely allergic to being touched on the neck. I would wear nothing around my neck for several years, even a scarf. But later, I had this lover who enjoyed strangulation. It became a challenge to like it, to distinguish between someone who strangles you to rape you, and someone who does it for other reasons. Eventually, I liked it a lot.”
In Calle's new exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery, which centers around footage of a bank's ATM users from 1988, we get Calle at her self-reflective (and intrusive) best. She “seduced” the bank to give her the film, which she sat with for 15 years while figuring out how to turn it into her kind of art. All that time, Calle insisted on adding text to the images, since word-based art is a Sophie Calle trademark. She hired a writer to add stories. She interviewed strange men at Paris ATMs, asking them how much they earned. She sat on the street in front of her house “being a CCTV.” She went through hypnosis. Nothing worked, so she gave up and in 2003 made a 30-minute film, Unfinished, that documented her attempt at making an art project. This film is key to understanding the exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery — and to understanding Calle herself. The still images that she took of the ATM footage, which bring to mind issues of privacy and surveillance, are themselves worthy of the Sophie Calle imprimatur, even if they are sans text.
“Here, it's a very silent show,” Calle told SF Weekly, standing in the gallery during a recent afternoon. “The text is all in the movie. The movie is the story of the show, how I went from failure to the work itself. It's the story of a failure. I couldn't find what to do with the images. The movie is my attempt to put together all my failures to make the work. For 15 years, I looked for an idea that I could not find.”
During that time, Calle continued to exhibit widely, and to make even more of an international name for herself. In 2007, she represented France at the Venice Biennale. In 2010, she won the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, one of the world's most prestigious prizes. (Previous winners include Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, and Cindy Sherman.) “Take Care of Yourself,” an exhibit that analyzes an email breakup with a boyfriend that ended with those four words, has toured at major venues for eight years, including a stop this year in Mexico City.
No other art-world photographer has been so successful for so long at mining the fine line between public and personal affairs. Even by modern internet standards, where voyeurism is an entrenched part of the culture, Calle's ongoing work sets a high bar for art that emanates from people's willing and unwilling participation. While some people give in to Calle's artistic charms, others seek them out. In 1999, a man wrote to Calle from California saying he'd just had a bad breakup and wanted to recover in her Paris bed. Calle thought about it, then mailed her bed to him.
“I did it,” she says now, “because the man who wrote to me, this California guy, he had a beautiful style — a very nice lettering. I was attracted by the way he asked.”
That's how much words mean to Calle, and why including the ATM images without her own attached narration was so agonizing for her. Narration accompanies another work at Fraenkel, Suicide, a photo series about people who kill themselves by drowning. Those with money issues, Calle suggests, go quickly.
“They say,” Calle writes on an image of dark waves, “that the police can distinguish between people who drown themselves for love and those who drown themselves for money. Lovers can change their mind, their fingers scraped from clinging to the piers. Debtors sink to the bottom like slabs of concrete.”
In person, and in Unfinished, Calle is funny and philosophical — a storyteller who says that, at age 62, she has the same artistic motivations she did when she was in her 20s and taking images between the sheets.
“I'm older,” Calle says, “but I still go from investigating about myself to using other people's stories — this back-and-forth. I keep playing with both directions. What has changed, maybe, is that I have a little more money to fabricate things.”
Money, secrecy and death are the Fraenkel exhibit's central motifs. In Calle's ATM photos, people fret as they wait for the machine to disperse their cash. They raise their eyebrows. They agonize. Money has a hold on them. None of them seem happy. None of them, it's clear, ever expected their image would be used by a Paris photographer with a history of nosing around. At a Fraenkel gallery talk with Lawrence Rinder, the Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive who brought Calle to the museum in 1990, Calle stayed silent about exactly how she got the ATM footage, and how she acquired the police mug shots that are also in the exhibit.
Maybe Calle will confess when she attends a reception at the gallery on Thursday, Nov. 5. But if history is any guide, Calle will take the secret to her grave — something which, incidentally, she has already purchased in the Marin town of Bolinas. Calle has an affinity for Bolinas, where she first took photos almost 40 years ago and where she still has friends. Calle hitchhiked there once in the '70s, during a period when money was tight. Asking people for help set her up for a lifetime of photographic work that relies on the kindness of strangers.