I was reading the chapter of David Bate’s book Art Photography where he considers “Archives, Networks and Narratives” and had reached the section that dealt with Sophie Calle’s Hotel Room photographs (pp 115-119). The work is made up of pictures taken by Calle while she was working as a cleaner in a Venetian hotel. They are a record of the possessions guests had left out, scattered around their rooms. The pictures are supported by Calle’s account of her employment and what she found in the rooms and when. They allow you to construct a picture of the people staying in the rooms from the objects they have left behind. There is a distinct sense of surveillance and the collection of evidence. Looking at the pictures (I had first become daware of them in 2010 during the big Tate Modern show, Exposed ) you begin to wonder what the cleaner thinks of you as they clean your hotel room. Just what sort of person can be constructed from the things you leave lying around?
There were phrases in Bate’s text that niggled away in my head: “She (Calle) creates chronicles,” “using a diary mode,” “evidential-type,” “the introduction […] informs us that Calle had been temporarily engaged as a chambermaid” (my emphases).
Suddenly, I realised that Sophie Calle did not necessarily have to have taken a job as a chambermaid, in Venice or anywhere else. In fact, the making of the pictures is more credible if – like Cindy Sherman et al – if she’d constructed the photographs rather than finding them in the course of her work as a chambermaid. 12 rooms to clean does not leave much time for looking and finding and thinking about and then photographing a series of objets trouvé.
What the series was doing was making us aware of the way that the disempowered have access to our -by which I mean the sort of people who stay in hotels and who look at art – lives. Indeed, it could be read as an updated version of the cliché of Edwardian gentry discussing very private things in front of their servants because they had ceased to notice that they were people who were there rather than just part of the furniture.
As such, it didn’t really matter whether the background story of the pictures provided by Calle was fact or fiction. What mattered was that the pictures where there, and the narrative that they sparked in conjunction with the story of their making.
Gradually the feeling that the pictures were fictional faded and I once again accepted that they had been made according to the process described by Calle. However, this in no way invalidated the revelation that – for certain pictures at least – the question of whether they had been staged or not was less important than what they were saying. While a picture of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon really does need to have been taken on the moon or the photograph discussed by John Berger in his 1967 essay Image of Imperialism, of Che Guevara’s body really needs to show Che Guevara’s dead body, other subjects can afford to have a less indexical relationship with the truth.
31 years ago, while I was studying English literature at Glasgow, my tutor – Paddy Lyons – accused me of inventing a short story I had used to illustrate a point on non-realist narrative technique in an essay I had written on science fiction. I think we were both quite disappointed when I had to admit I’d found it in a collection of stories I’d bought from Voltaire and Rousseau (a second hand book shop, off Otago Street).
The same part of me that wishes I’d had the time to have been able to create a fictional diary in section three still feels a twinge of regret about not having invented that short story…
- Bate, D (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.
- Berger, J (1967) Image of imperialism. In: (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin
- Calle, S. (2010) The Hotel, Room 47, 1981.
[2 works on paper, photographs and ink] ‘Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera’. London: Tate Modern. 28th May – 3rd October