Artist Sophie Calle: Biography & Photography

Instructor: Maura Valentino

Maura has taught college information literacy and has a master's degree in library and information science.

Learn about controversial French photographer Sophie Calle. Discover how she has transformed her life into a work of art in an effort to explore human vulnerability, identity, and intimacy.

Welcome to the World of Sophie Calle

Imagine yourself at an art exhibit where black and white photographs line the walls. Suddenly, you realize that you are the subject of each of the photographs! You struggle to make sense of how someone could have taken so many pictures of you without your knowledge. Welcome to the world of photographer Sophie Calle.

Calle creates works of art that challenge the boundaries of documentary and artistic photography. She delights in breaking rules and challenging social conventions. She photographs people and their possessions without their knowledge. She uses subterfuge to obtain access to private locations. She reveals intimate details about her personal life, her relationships, and those of her subjects. As a result, she has been labeled a voyeur and an exhibitionist by her critics and by her supporters.

Artworks by Sophie Calle
Works by Sophie Calle

Calle also takes a controversial approach to the technical aspects of her photography. She does not create photographs that stand alone as works of art. Rather, as critic Yve-Alain Bois points out, 'photographs are among the materials she uses,' and many of her most important works are simple photographs accompanied by handwritten or printed text. Calle uses photography as a means to explore human relationships and artistic ideas. For this reason, she is considered a conceptual artist, or an artist who creates works in which concepts or ideas are of primary importance rather than concerns with aesthetics and artistic technique. She views her entire life as a work of art in which she explores human identity, intimacy and vulnerability while challenging the accepted boundaries of public and private space.

Career Highlights

Sophie Calle was born on October 9, 1953 in Paris, France. She left Paris after completing school to travel abroad. While in California she developed an interest in photography and learned basic photographic techniques. In 1979, at the age of 26, Calle returned to Paris. She enrolled in a photography class, but she only attended one session as she felt the class had nothing to offer her.

One day a friend asked Calle if she could sleep in Calle's bed. This request inspired Calle to ask other people to spend eight hours in her bed while she took photographs and asked them various questions. The result was her first major work, The Sleepers (1979) in which she combined photographs and text from these encounters. Using photographs and text to create works of art would become the foundation of Calle's technique.

Calle created two of her most iconic and controversial works during the early 1980s. To create The Hotel (1983), she obtained work as a hotel housekeeper. Having gained access to the hotel rooms of strangers in this way, she examined and photographed their possessions without their knowledge. She went through their suitcases, bedside tables, and trash. She read their letters, diaries and other papers. From this information she created twelve individual works. Each work contains photographs of the possessions she found in one room, along with text written by Calle in which she discusses the person she imagines to be the room's occupant. This work proved controversial due to Calle's brazen invasion of the hotel guests' privacy as she searched and photographed their rooms.

The Address Book (1983) was inspired by Calle's discovery of a lost address book. She copied the book and then returned it to its owner, documentary film-maker Pierre Baudry. Without his knowledge, she interviewed the people listed in the address book and built a comprehensive portrait of Baudry's life. She combined text based on these interviews with photographs of other people enjoying Baudry's favorite activities. When she published the results in the Libération newspaper, Baudry threatened to sue for invasion of privacy. He relented when the newspaper agreed to print a nude photograph of Calle.

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