Born in 1953, Sophie Calle is a French artist whose work examines the intersection between the public and private spheres. She uses both photography and text to record her experiences or “projects” that explore the themes of intimacy, identity, and the private lives of others.
For one of her first projects, Suite Venitienne (1980), Calle followed a man, “Henri B.”, from Paris to Venice without detection. Under a disguise, Calle photographed him and noted his interactions and whereabouts from afar in order to discover the purpose of his trip. Reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd,” Calle dedicates herself to the observational life of the flâneur and takes great pleasure in investigating the private lives of strangers. In The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as being so involved in his work that “his passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd” (9). In the same way, Calle’s creative pursuits immerse her personally “in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and the flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite” (Baudelaire 9); her life and work become one entity, a kind of performance art that involves so much of her life being an active performance for the sake of art and expression.
Calle’s work transcends Baudelaire’s model of the flâneur by removing herself from the crowd entirely and even studying her subject without his presence. In The Hotel (1981), Calle took a job as a maid where she was able to study the possessions of hotel guests as a way to discover their character. By infiltrating the private sphere, Calle becomes a voyeur as a prying observer seeking out the secrets of strangers.
In The Address Book (1983), after finding a notebook of contacts on the street, Calle called each person listed in the book in order to discover the identity of its owner. As one of her most public and most popular works, she published her findings in a daily newspaper, eventually leading the owner to claim his lost item. In order to make up for the fact that she had exposed the anonymous owner to the world, the man asked her to publish a nude picture of herself in the publication, which she agreed to. By publishing her findings, Calle shares the investigative experience with “the crowd,” who also find pleasure in infiltrating the personal domain of others. In addition, by agreeing to publish a nude photo of herself and thus becoming vulnerable to the public gaze, Calle points to the relationship between the flâneur and the voyeur as being intrinsically related through their infiltration of the intimate, personal sphere.
Through her work, Calle is able to be both the voyeur and the flâneur, taking pleasure in anonymously observing others but also analyzing her experience and translating it into an artistic form. Although Calle’s work could be viewed as disturbing for its intrusiveness, it has been quite well received by the public, illustrating how she is “a mirror as vast as the crowd itself” (9), reflective of humanity’s universal curiosity. In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire described the flâneur’s desire “to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…[as] pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily describe” (9). By making her experience as a modern-day flâneur accessible to the rest of “the crowd,” Sophie Calle further develops the role of the flâneur by transforming the insular, analytical practice into a universally shared study of human nature.