My initial reaction to Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne was somewhat sceptical. Her work is several steps removed from ‘street photography’ where individuals might be captured in a single shot. The idea of following people and taking photos of them in itself seems a bit odd but then to go to the lengths of flying to another country and city and pursuing an individual seemed weird.
It raised ethical issues in my head linked to surveillance and the privacy of the individual. The Human Rights Act would forbid the state from conducting similar acts without good reason, for example national security, so why should it be OK for an artist to do it? Learning from the course materials that Calle’s own life is open to public scrutiny didn’t really help with my concerns. Calle choses to make her life an open book but the people she followed don’t have any control over what she exhibits.
From this I took to the Internet to discover more about Calle’s work. The course materials suggest that as a conceptual artist who uses photography as a key mode of expression she is less concerned with aesthetics. While I’ve not see the whole of Suite Venitienne I did find the comment puzzling. The websites I visited have exercised curatorial control over the images they chose to display but images I came across from Suite Venitienne have a strong aesthetic quality to them – perhaps I’m not understanding the concept of aesthetics?
Three images from Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne
Upon closer examination of Suite Venitienne it becomes clear that Calle displayed her work akin to that of professional surveillance. In fact in other works she has reversed the role and hired a private detective to follow her. Images are placed alongside text that documents her attempts to track down her subject. Written as though part of a case file of a private detective, they describe her time in Venice. I must admit I found the juxtaposition of images and text quite appealing. It has a playful, perhaps role playing sensibility to it – here Calle get to play out a fantasty role of a private eye. Some of the grainy monochrome and unconventional compositions at times seem filmic as though stills from 1960’s French cinema vertiae, while others looked like the work of Henri Cartier Bresson. Overall, while reservations about the ethics of her approach still trouble me I have to some extent been seduced, won over, by the presentation of the work.
The course materials at this point pose a couple of questions. One concerns an adventure that would place me in a different subjective position photographically. I puzzled over this for a while before the penny dropped for me. Hadn’t I already done this in my re-working of Exercise 3.4 Documenting Change? Seated on a train with my little ‘point and shoot’ camera I took a range of images very different from what I’m accustomed too. I did like this experiment and felt a sense of freedom doing it: being free from having to produce considered, crisp, focussed images. I was giving up some of the control of the image making, allowing movement of the train, for example, to influence the outcome of the image. Another experimental approach was used for Exercise 3.5 Photographs from Text and I feel my appetite for pushing the boundaries of my usual ‘vanilla’ approach is growing.
The final question is about taking a job that would give me access to a kind of subject that would be new to me. This is trickier. I already have a full time job and it’s one that at present is not conducive to photography – I’m working on it but it’s a slow burn! Taking another ‘job’, however, would limit my free time and impact on my ability to complete my OCA work. In the recent past I have explored being a voluntary photographer but out here in rural Suffolk the opportunities are fairly scare.
David Campany ‘Art and Photography’ abridged and revised edition 2012 (Phaidon)