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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review The Hotel Photographs & text by Sophie Calle Reviewed by Odette England "I dismember the book page by page. Isn’t taking a photograph a sort of dismembering of the world? Consider subbing dismemberment for another word. Word is in world. There is no L in Moyra or Davey or Peter or Hujar or The Shabbiness of Beauty or Vanishing. Rather, lots of love, lonesomeness, lust, looking, and light..."

The Hotel by Sophie Calle.
The Hotel
Photographs & text by Sophie Calle

Siglio Press, New York, 2021. 248 pages, 212 illustrations, 6x8."

You shouldn’t invite me to a dinner party. I mean, I’m a reasonable guest. I arrive on time, bearing something nice (flowers, wine, dessert, pet treats). I offer to help serve or dry the dishes. I have a non-offensive laugh. You can seat me on the upside-down trash can that doubles as a spare chair, I won’t complain. I also know a few two-drink-minimum party tricks, like applying lipstick using only my breasts. But when I go to the restroom, my inner spy manifests: I will inspect the contents of your medicine cabinet.

Why? Because that’s where your uncensored life is. It’s one of the few concealed spaces of a home I can access without detection. Peek at a private version of you, presented in rows with reasonable lighting, revealing much more than your refrigerator. Your birth control preferences, meds you’re taking; wow, you use that brand, yeesh… I check out your stuff and draw conclusions. I know you know: it’s estimated almost 40 percent of folks admit that they put things away before guests arrive. Good thing, too; otherwise I’ll treat myself to a spritz of that classy perfume, thank you so much. It’s also a project I thought about as a student: thrusting my Speedlite into the shallows of friends’ little cupboards, then using their surnames or addresses as captions.

Few would do more justice to such a project than Sophie Calle. The only photographer I’d invite to stay with me long-term to see her take, in words and pictures, on the unflattering reality of my life. Remember in 1999 when the world gave birth to the Big Brother franchise? John de Mol Jr. missed an opportunity by not inviting Calle to direct what would become the biggest reality competitions on the planet. Though, it’s more fun to think of Calle turning down the offer. She has already syndicated her creative genius in more persuasive, compelling ways. One being her latest photobook The Hotel, first included in the 1999 book Double Game (long out of print). Now, a single standalone book and available in English for the first time.

The first spread is a black-and-white image of a bed. The book’s gutter separates left side from right. There are two pillows top of frame, then a sheet, wrinkled and turned down; then a patterned stained bedspread. Along the bottom of the page the text reads: On Monday February 16, 1981, I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned twelve bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed, through details, lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday March 6, the job came to an end.

It may seem Calle is giving the game away. Far from it: The Hotel becomes spicier and weirder with every page turn.

Let’s pause to consider Monday February 16, 1981, two days after Valentine’s Day (when almost a third of cheaters have affairs in hotels). Calle is 28 years old. A hand grenade explodes and kills the man carrying it at a stadium in Karachi, before Pope John Paul II arrives to celebrate mass with 70,000 people. It’s the year Ronald Regan is shot, Kiev’s Motherland Monument opens, and The Smurfs make their television debut. People are listening to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 on the radio. It’s also International Pancake Day. Why does any of this matter? This is a sliver of the backdrop to which Calle pokes her lens and pen into the lives and suitcases of strangers whom she is entrusted to clean up after. It provides some context, and context is everything.

Now for some theories about hotel land. The TV remote control is the dirtiest object in your room. Big suitcases mean high-maintenance guests. Never use the decorative cushions; they spend most of their lives on the floor. If you leave out your expensive shoes, they will be Cinderelled (yes, borrowing guests’ clothes happens outside of films like Maid in Manhattan). Oh, and having a fourth floor in a hotel is bad luck, a bit like a gate thirteen at an airport.

There are twelve color images positioned at intervals in The Hotel, full-bleed portraits of the beds in each of the rooms assigned to Calle. They are frontal, formal, clinical photographs. Beds made, the perspective direct. Everything is in its place. Each followed by a black and white photograph of an opposing view. Beds are now messy, angles off-kilter. Neatness replaced with the creases of cuddles, courtship, and conversation. On the next page, we’re given the room number and dates of occupancy, followed by seesaw arrangements of Calle’s adroit storytelling. It’s here the content hovers between police report, diary, press photo caption, missing cat poster, home shopping network catalog, photocopy log, and medical invoice. In short, a genre all its own.

Combining image and text well in a photobook is tricky. Calle is a master. Neither triumphs over the other. Calle takes to words like a surgeon wielding a favorite ten-blade. Each sentence is a balance between rudimentary and essential. So too with her camera. I feel Calle’s gaze touch every object. I hear her inhale the musty smell of the hotel iron that has infected your poly-cotton shirt. Her lips so close to its collar she can almost taste its texture. All the while she unravels, labels, authenticates her version of your life in the starkest, most enchanting minimalism.

I’m not distracted by assessing the technical quality of the pictures. I could care less about the focus, film grain, or camera used. This is not a book about darkroom techniques or rules of thirds. It’s about interactions of evidence that excite, amuse, even titillate.

The Hotel
, as a book-object, is meticulous. It presents, in size and weight, like a good quality bible kept in the bedside top drawer. Its cloth cover bearing three different patterns, replicating the hotel’s soft furnishings. The endpapers a shade of heritage green used in carpet made for high traffic areas. Also, for paint that hides sinful stains on hotel walls. It even comes with a bookmark in the shape of a miniature hotel doorknob hanger that says JOYFULLY RESTING… ah, Calle, I adore your sense of humor.

What stands out to me about The Hotel is how we assume we could possibly know anything true about a stranger through their ordinary stuff. What Calle reveals is much more than getting close to it, using flash to photograph it, writing about it, et voila! So many inferences, so many conclusions. There is no greater context-cutter than the camera and its offspring, the photograph. No one exorcises reality like these partners in crime. Yet we give them so much latitude, so much faith, hope, and charity.

The Hotel
documents Calle’s experiences while also probing complex relationships between photography, discretion, instinct, and appetite. Indeed, why as photographers we often lean into snooping and sneaking. Curiosity doesn’t so much kill the cat as feed the camera. It removes some of the barriers to who we are and what we assume the world cannot see. It makes known the detritus of intimate acts that leave us vulnerable without us knowing. Calle proves that few if any spaces are ours and ours alone. Even spaces we assume are private (or neutral). Calle’s heightened senses gather information about us, our traits and personal concerns. She’s not looking for social cohesion or conformity. She’s not looking for damning evidence to support what she thinks she knows. Maybe she’s making snap judgements. Really, she’s just looking. Stripping away tiers of privacy we’re so accustomed to building up.

Why do we like insider photo projects like The Hotel? Because we’re curious about people. We enjoy secrets. We like to think about what people do behind closed doors. Yes, people take out their earrings and use them to clean their fingernails. They remove their wristwatches and sniff the sweaty skin behind. We pick our noses, rearrange our underwear, use utensils for purposes unintended. And then we lie about it or, worse, tell people we never lie. As I write this I wonder to myself how long an affair between a photograph and lie detector would last. Calle’s book shows us from all angles: none of us lie straight in bed.

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Odette England is an artist and writer; an Assistant Professor and Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts; and a resident artist of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program in New York. Her work has shown in more than 90 solo, two-person, and group exhibitions worldwide. England’s first edited volume Keeper of the Hearth was published by Schilt Publishing (2020), with a foreword by Charlotte Cotton. Radius Books will publish her second book Past Paper // Present Marks in collaboration with the artist Jennifer Garza-Cuen in spring 2021 including essays by Susan Bright, David Campany, and Nicholas Muellner.