Calle was born in Paris in 1953. Her father, Robert, was a Camargue Protestant, an oncologist, and a respected collector of contemporary art; her mother, Monique Sindler, was Jewish, a journalist who wrote very little but smoked a lot. An improbable pair, they divorced when Sophie was three. As a teen-ager, Calle joined a Maoist group, and then briefly trained with Palestinian fedayeen in Lebanon—for the struggle but also, she has since said, to impress a boyfriend. In Paris, she began organizing with an underground abortion network and pursued a degree in sociology, before travelling for several years—selling vacuums, waitressing, cannabis farming, and working in a circus. Calle first tried photography at twenty-six, as a kind of compromise: it pleased her father but wasn’t really “art,” which had long felt incompatible with her militant commitments.
In Calle’s first public exhibition, “The Sleepers,” from 1979, the paradox of her gaze, its transgressive curiosity and its cool remove, is already apparent. For eight nights, she invited friends and strangers to each spend eight hours in her bed while she photographed and made notes about them: whether they snored, what they dreamed about. Her photographs convey extreme closeness—we see the curve of a naked buttock, a pale knee peeking out from below the covers—but the brevity of her handwritten captions dispels any eroticism in favor of sociological restraint. “At 6.45pm he sleeps deeply,” she writes of one man. “He keeps throwing off the covers.” If these are intimate revelations, what they reveal is just how little we can know about others, even those with whom we share our bed.
This sort of case study belongs to the larger French practice of proximate ethnography, which developed in the nineteen-eighties, when mass tourism had made the world feel smaller and faraway lands less exotic. The idea was to invert anthropology’s othering gaze through a focus on the local and the banal. Books such as Marc Augé’s “In the Metro” (1986), which tracked the subterranean rituals of the Parisian subway system, and Annie Ernaux’s “Exteriors” (1993), a diary of scenes, objects, and overheard conversations, are impersonal databases of everydayness.
In “The Hotel,” Calle sets out to provide a similar kind of inventory, as if working backward from so-called personal effects to find the cause—the story or the person—that produced them. Her authority as an ethnographer, and as an artist, depends on her acuity and discernment. She observes that an evening dress is “not silk but nylon,” spots a fancy Pléiade edition of Taoist writings, and notes the guests’ chosen cigarette brands: Marlboro, Camel, Gauloises, or Player’s. In this catalogue of objects, there is narrative tension, too—between those things that people pack to feel at home (framed photos, slippers, a hot-water bottle) and those they bring precisely because they aren’t (a brightly colored wig, a pair of platform mules, a bow tie).