I’ve been thinking about Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne where the artist followed a bloke she met at a party in Paris to Venice secretly photographing him. Calle’s practice was already kind of stalky so this extension of following and photographing random people should not have been that surprising. I should make it clear right now, I really like this work, I like the fact she took what documentary and street photographers do but for the purpose of making art and actually made art. The project wouldn’t get past an ethics committee these days, and this is almost certainly a very good thing on the whole judging by the shit that people search for and purchase on the Getty Images site. Nevertheless I’m glad she did it because it throws some interesting light on the practices of photography and how in the hands of different practitioners with their differing goals and reasons to click the shutter, meaning in photography is so very much more than what the image appears to be showing because, like Minor White says, all photographs are self portraits.
In 1979, around the time that Calle was embarking on her stalky odyssey, I was starting a foundation course in art and design. I arrived primed to become an illustrator only for my plans to be bleakly derailed within 2 weeks, by the end of the academic year I’d swapped pens and pencils for camera and film for art school. I started taking photos of my friends in the pub and this branched out in to my own little stalky odd-essay where I’d mainly photograph the backs of people in the street. This was in part shyness, but also a fascination with the paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau who peppered his compositions with exactly that.
There is something really interesting about a figure in an image who has absolutely no reason to engage with the artist. It implies they’ve got something more worthwhile to be getting on with while the painter or photographer farts about with their equipment. Observing and recording this lack of engagement in such a way to pique the interest of the audience is a skill. Of the two women featured in Watteau’s painting, it’s the one in the heavy silky dress that my imagination runs riot about, I think she is some revolution spiking top tier member of the second estate unaware this indifference will lead some to the guillotine. She’s a powerful, unknowable presence. Watteau, without who this image could not possibly exist, is completely irrelevant.
Intrusion and indifference in art making is something I wrote about a while ago and the contrast between what Calle made as a photographer and how it sits in the canon compared with the litigation around Arne Svenson’s work by 2015 is illuminating. The subjects objected to him making money from their images. He won the case and the people he had covertly photographed and publicly exhibited were placed clearly in the public domain, identifiable from court records and descriptions of their complaints that described the images they were in; in fact, pretty much a re-run of Nussenzweig v. diCorcia*.
What seems to get missed in the cross fire about this work is the sheer indifference of the subjects to their observer in the suite of photographs makes them incredibly powerful. Certainly it’s a direct stare at the plane the separates the indoor and outdoor spaces. But as with Watteau’s subjects, exactly what their narrative is, is unknowable within the space of the image. And that is exactly what gives each human depicted considerable power.
So Svensen’s use of a long lens to capture banal scenes from the lives of people within eyeshot of his alleged home may actually be less creepy than it at first seems. If the subjects had turned round, looked outwards instead of in to the darkened spaces they inhabit, they might have caught Svenson in the act and reacted with indignation and fury, which perhaps are not unreasonable, are also not sustainable states.
Had Calle been a man and the subject been a woman, the discourse about this work and its reputation are different now. Her behavior went far further than Svensen’s, eventually causing her subject to confront her, without recourse to the law. Both of these artists are examining humans as private individuals in the public space and the artistic urge to catalogue it because glacial indifference speaks of life going on, where as the decisive moment is just that, a moment, framed and constricted by the artist’s gaze.