Photo-Eye: The Hotel probes “complex relationships between photography, discretion, instinct, and appetite”

News Section, Reviews

November 13th, 2021

(Review) The Hotel by Sophie Calle


Book of the Week


Originally published November 8 (link to original post)

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.

Continue reading (please do—it’s a really great dive into the work!)