“For ‘The Hotel,’ I spent one year to find the hotel, I spent three months going through the text and writing it, I spent three months going through the photographs, and I spent one day deciding it would be this size and this frame . . . it’s the last thought in the process.”
About the artist
Sophie Calle began her artistic project upon returning to Paris in 1979 after a seven-year absence. Feeling lost in her own city she began following people, creating voyeuristic situations in which she trailed her random subjects and then reported on what she found in the photographs, notations, and fictionalized accounts of their lives. One of her most notorious works is The Address Book. In 1983, she found a man’s telephone book, called the people listed in it to discuss the owner, and then reported the observations in a French newspaper, much to the man’s outrage. For the series The Hotel (1983), Calle posed as a chambermaid in a Venice pensione to investigate the lives of strangers through their possessions and habits. In the guests’ absence, she photographed opened luggage, laundry, contents of bathrooms, and even trashcans, noting details gleaned from diaries, letters, and so on. Each of the twelve works in the series (one for each room Calle was assigned to clean) consists of a grid of photographs shown alongside a larger image of the hotel room’s bed, which is above a text written by the artist. Freely combining fact and conjecture, the texts include quotes and details from the documents Calle read as well as her own interpretations of the people whose privacy she playfully—and almost criminally—invaded.
Text Passage from The Hotel, Room 30
Wednesday March 4, 1981. 11:20a.m.
I go into room 30. Only one bed has been slept in, the one on the right. There is a small bag on the luggage stand. A beautifully ironed silk nightgown lies on the chair that has been pulled up near the bed: it clearly has never been worn. Everything else is still in the traveling bag. All I see there is men’s clothing: grey trousers, a grey striped shirt, a pair of socks, a toilet kit (razor, shaving cream, comb, aftershave lotion), a dog-eared photograph of a group of young people surrounding an older woman, a passport in the name of M.L., male sex, Italian nationality, born in 1946 in Rome, his place of residence, five foot seven, blue eyes. The bathroom is empty, so is the closet, but in the drawer of the night table I find: a box of Panter cigars, a fountain pen, airmail stationary, a leather box with the initials M.L. On a piece of paper is the address of a Mr. and Mrs. B. in Florence, a wallet with five identical photographs of a blond woman and a wedding photograph showing the man in the passport in a tuxedo and the blond woman in a wedding gown. There is also an old bill from the Hotel C., dated March 4, 1979, in the name of Mr. and Mrs. L for the same room, number 30. Exactly two years ago, M.L. spent the night in the Hotel C. with his wife. He has come back alone. With the embroidered nightgown in his suitcase. His reservation was for last night only. He is leaving today. I’ll do the room later.
View + Discuss
1. This work by Sophie Calle includes photographs with text. Let’s take a look at the photographs first—what do you see?
2. In order to create this work, Calle took a temporary job as a chambermaid cleaning rooms in a hotel in Venice. This work focuses on a hotel guest who stayed in one of the rooms and contains photographs Calle secretly took of the person’s possessions and habits in their absence. The text written by the artist combines fact, fiction and her own interpretations of the guest whose room she invaded. Imagine you are a detective—using these photographs as “evidence,” tell us about the guest in this room. Have students create a character portrait. Who is this guest? Why are they visiting the hotel? What might they look like? What are their likes/dislikes? Are they staying in the room alone?
(Read aloud the text passage by Calle provided above or photocopy it for students to read on their own. Compare and contrast with student responses and their character portraits.)
3. Although her intentions were playful, Calle’s work often invades the personal privacy of people in order to create her art. How do you feel about this approach to a work of art?
4. What difference would it have made if she focused on photographing the actual guests of the hotel instead? How would that change the way you respond to and think about the work?
5. Read the artist’s quote above. What does it tell us about Calle’s process and interests as an artist?
Following the same compositional format as Calle, have students create their own series based on found images from magazines, newspapers,
old photographs, etc. Accompany the images with written text that thematically unites them under one fictionalized narrative.
Using the same photographic and text entry style as Calle, have students photograph “clues” from a room (or rooms) of their home. Arrange the photographs in a grid and accompany the images with written text about the inhabitant(s) of the rooms.
Much of Calle’s work resonates with the contemporary pop culture that will inevitably connect to the students’ experiences. Have them make a list of things they’ve experienced/seen in their daily lives that relate to the voyeuristic undertones of Calle’s work such as reality TV shows, etc.
Using computers and a digital camera or scanner, have students create a digital version of their investigations using the same text and image composition as Calle. After collecting digital images and constructing fictionalized stories in the activities above, work with students to create a new slide presentation in the Microsoft Office software program Power Point using the following commands:
File > New Presentation > Blank Template > AutoLayout ‘Blank’
Next, create several image textboxes on the first slide by using the following commands from the toolbar on top of the screen:
Insert > Picture > From File
Then, find the digital images taken by the students. Place the images on separate slides, or on one slide like Calle’s composition.
As the students create the layout, ask them to consider how the images and the text work together to tell a story, or only part of the story.
Bois, Yve-Alain. “Character Study: Sophie Calle.” Artforum, April, 2000, pp.126–31.
Calle, Sophie and Jean Baudrillard. Suite Venitienne/Please Follow Me. Bay Press, 1988.
Calle, Sophie, and Paul Auster. Double Game. Violette Editions, 2000.
27th Annual Hilla Rebay Lecture: Episodes from the Visual Culture of Electric Paris
Tuesday, May 12, 6:30 pm
Scholar Hollis Clayson analyzes the impact of the invention of light on artists and caricaturists in 19th-century Paris.