I discovered Sophie Calle whilst reading another book The photograph as Contemporary Art where her work was discussed briefly as an example of a photographer whose work lies somewhere between fact and fiction. I had previously heard about her work Suite Venitienne in a brief discussion with a fellow photographer and I was intrigued to seek it out and form my own opinion of it.
The book regards her voyeuristic journey in the search and ultimate stalking of a man she calls “Henri B.” on his journey through Venice.
Her work in this project isn’t solely based on the photographs alone. She accompanies her photographs with a daily diary in which she describes her movements, her feelings and her imagined thoughts and views on Henri B’s actions.
The series is shot in black and white on a Leica with a Squintar attachment which is basically a spy lens. This is something I had not heard of before, but sounds interesting. It allows you to point your camera one way and shoot in another direction. Being that I am interested in street photography but sometimes lack the courage to point my camera directly into a strangers face, which also feels quite an invasive action, a Squintar is definitely something I would like to experiment with in the future.
Perhaps, using a Squintar could possibly be considered “cheating” in street photography or even morally incorrect as there is very little chance a person would be aware you were photographing them. Which would lead into an even bigger debate on how morally correct street photography is anyway and leads into the basis of my thoughts on Sophie Calle’s work.
Following a man who is unknowingly photographed throughout the streets of Venice is conceptuality a romantic sounding notion perhaps. The location itself is considered one of the most romantic cities in this world and the idea of a woman watching this man from afar sounds like the beginnings of a romantic film however Calle does state that she does not have any amorous feelings towards Henri B, but implies that she “must not forget that” which leads me to believe she is playing out a fictionally fantasy, like an actor in a film.
If I were to view the photos alone, maybe with an initially brief description of the concept, I could buy into this romantic fantasy. However, with the accompanying text in the form of her diary, it suddenly becomes real and actually unnerves me. The photos begin to take on a different view for me, one of perverse obsession and the intrusion into a person’s life. I start to consider the morality behind street photography and whether the difference between obtaining a single shot of someone interesting passing by and actually seeking a person out, following them and taking several shots of them. I conclude that Sophie Calle’s method is crossing over from simple street photography to something more complex and deep. With the accompanying diary I am not only viewing Henri B’s journey photographically, but I’m gaining a perspective on what is going on inside the mind of the artist, which is morbidly fascinating.
The photos in this series are largely anonymous. Whilst some show faces, they are never of the intended subject. Henri B’s face is never fully shown so his identity remains a secret. As a viewer this leads me into the fantasy, I too, begin to wonder about Henri B, just as Calle is doing on her journey.
There is a sense of urgency to some of the photographs, some are out of focus, some capture movement, some give the impression that Calle is peeking around corners with her camera in hand, but all are composed beautifully and the storybook nature by which they are organised leads me on a journey through Venice with her. I feel like I am there searching the streets of Venice for Henri B.
I have to say that the ending was quite anti-climatic, I was drawn into the fantasy and came crashing down into the reality of it all, just as Sophie Calle describes it herself “A banal end to this banal story”. She simply followed a man through Venice.
Examples Taken from Suite Venitienne By Sophie Calle
The romantic notion of this flower delivery man drew me to this picture, I wondered who and where he was taking the flowers to. Compositionally I enjoy the framing of the silhouette figure emerging from the dark alley that Sophie Calle appears to be lurking in. Even though the scenery is somewhat obscured, I still get a sense of the location with the architecture and fountain in the background. It sets the scene well and despite lacking the colour with the enormous bouquet of flowers you can still see the detail as the light hits them from above.
This out of focus shot of Henri B framed in the archway is aesthetically pleasing to me. The light floods the archway contrasting the anonymous male figure down the centre of the frame. As before, although you can’t tell exactly where the location is from this picture alone, you still get a sense of the beautiful surroundings with the paved floor and grand archways, it adds to the fantasy and guided imaginings of the story within the pages of this book. The dark framing to the edges, again gives me the sense of Sophie Calle being hidden and lurking behind as she follows him.
I chose this picture which spreads across two pages within the book for a few different reasons. Firstly the leading lines of the steps, take me into the photograph and into the story in Venice, I can really feel a sense of being there when I view this photograph. But it also makes me wonder if, when taking this picture, did Sophie Calle have a nervous excitement? She is noticed (by the blurred man on the left) but remains unnoticed by Henri B who is absorbed in his own photography. I also wonder if the man behind the mask notices her? There are no dark corners to hide in, she is directly behind him, out in the open and completely exposed.
Calle, S. (2015) Suite Vénitienne. Siglio