Private eyes are watching you

Paul Constant

August 26, 2016

In the beginning of Suite Vénitienne, Sophie Calle writes that for some unknown reason, she started choosing strangers at random on the street and following them without their knowledge. She’d take photos of them and write little notations tracking their movements. Then, her little game escalated:

At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice. I decided to follow him.

Calle made only the barest preparation for her travels: “a make-up kit so I can disguise myself; a blond, bobbed wig; hats, veils, gloves, sunglasses; a Leica and a Squintar (a lens attachment equipped with a set of mirrors so I can take photos without aiming at the subject.)” It’s just one fake mustache and a vial of invisible ink away from a child preparing to play spy. She’s not a professional, she’s a curiosity seeker, trying to peek into someone else’s life.

Last year, Siglio released a redesigned edition of Vénitienne with Calle’s approval, and it’s gorgeous. The instinct with books of photographs is to make the book physically larger — to blow the photographs out so that the viewer can take their time, pull the images apart with their eyes. But Vénitienne, smartly, is pocket-sized, a little hardcover book not much bigger than a mass-market science fiction thriller. Calle’s grainy photographs of the back of her mystery man’s head are smudgy and dark and they resist your eyes. These are spy shots, taken on the fly with a film camera, and they are not meant to be lingered over. Instead, they’re a record of a very specific moment in time, a fraction of a second when Calle gained a clear line of sight.

When you try to parse the photographs in Vénitienne — the loafer-clad foot in front of a luggage rack on a train, say — you have to draw the photographs closer to your eye. The paper quality is not glossy, so you have to really look to see if Calle’s photos are blurry or if the grain of the paper is interceding with the visual information of the picture. Soon enough, you find yourself hunched over the book, peering uncomfortably close to the page. You’re a voyeur, too.

The narrative in Vénitienne comes from Calle in two different time periods: the present-tense text in black is the journal that she kept as she stalked her subject, and the lighter blue text in past tense was added after the project was complete. The book, then, is a triangle: Calle in the middle of her stalking experiment, her mysterious subject, and Calle after time diminished some of the fervor of her experiment.

At one point as Calle stakes out a spot, she’s confronted by a man who believes she’s acting suspiciously. “I tell him I’m in love with a man,” Calle writes in black text, but then blue-text Calle intercedes: “only love seems admissible” before black-text Calle regains the narrative thread: “and this man has been in Luigi’s antique shop since 6:15 in the company of a woman.” Instinctually, Calle knew to say she was in love, but after the fact she realizes that by positioning her strange behavior in relationship to a man, she was conforming to an understanding of acceptable womanly behavior. In one sentence written over two different time periods, Calle plays both the id and the ego, at once celebrating and criticizing her own actions.

To some, the story of Vénitienne might seem frivolous: a young woman with the financial stability to fly to Venice on a moment’s notice for an indeterminate amount of time, just to follow a man she met by coincidence? And sure, class issues are at play. But the thoughtfulness with which Calle — in both timelines —attacks the plan indicates that this is more than a vacation. For her, this is serious work.

Part of what Calle is doing, of course, is turning the predatory masculine eye onto itself. Or perhaps more accurately, she’s examining her own perception of what a predatory masculine eye is like. As indicated by the confrontation with the man quoted above, she does not adopt the carelessness and entitled air of a man seeking out a woman to admire. She doesn’t possess the easy confidence that one would attribute to a male stalker. This isn’t a woman pretending to be a man, and in fact her pursuit of the subject doesn’t seem to be sexual at all. She’s not exactly turning the tables on the male gaze; she’s just trying to act as though she has the right to stare, to follow someone, to look at them. She finds it an uncomfortable fit.

It’s hard to imagine what Vénitienne would be like if someone tried to reenact it today. Would a series of stalkerish Instagram posts achieve the same effect as Calle’s blurry, surreptitious photos? Would the stalker be banned from Instagram for inappropriate behavior? Would someone alert the subject of the stalking to what was going on — would the gentle purring of a phone in a man’s pocket represent the end of a modern-day Calle’s quest?

And are our ideas of surveillance even the same anymore? In 1980, the thought of a spy watching a man on the street had an air of romanticism to it, a specialness. Today, surveillance is a fact; it’s not paranoid, anymore, to assume that someone is watching you. (Although perhaps it’s self-indulgent to assume that anyone who’s watching actually gives a damn about you as anything more than a number streaming past on a monitor.) The idea of a woman with a mirror-equipped film camera taking pictures of a randomly selected man around corners almost feels quaint, artisanal. In a world where everyone is watching and nobody is paying attention, Calle’s actions in Vénitienne almost feel like an act of love.

Books in this review:
  • Suite Vénitienne
    by Sophie Calle
    Siglio
    May 26, 2015
    96 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

October 17, 2017

Going steady

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Boyfriends
    by Tara Atkinson
    Instant Future
    October 26, 2017
    36 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
  • Requiem for the American Dream
    by Noam Chomsky
    Seven Stories Press
    March 06, 2017
    192 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
October 04, 2017

Among the ruins

Jessica Mooney

writes about
  • Imagine Wanting Only This
    by Kristen Radtke
    Pantheon Books
    April 18, 2017
    288 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound