Sophie Calle (born 1953) is a French writer, photographer, installation artist, and conceptual artist. Calle's work is distinguished by its use of arbitrary sets of constraints, and evokes the French literary movement of the 1960s known as Oulipo. Her work frequently depicts human vulnerability, and examines identity and intimacy. She is recognized for her detective-like ability to follow strangers and investigate their private lives. Her photographic work often includes panels of text of her own writing.
After completing her schooling she travelled for seven years. When she returned to Paris in 1979 she began a series of projects to acquaint herself again both with the city and people of Paris and with herself. These sought to construct identities by offering documentary ‘proof' in the form of photographs. Her work was seen to have roots in the tradition of conceptual art because the emphasis was on the artistic idea rather than the finished object. The French writer Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay (1988) that described this project in terms of a reciprocal loss of will on the part of both pursued and pursuer. Another project, Detective (1980), consisted of Calle being followed for a day by a private detective, who had been hired (at Calle's request) by her mother. Calle proceeded to lead the unwitting detective around parts of Paris that were particularly important for her, thereby reversing the expected position of the observed subject. Such projects, with their suggestions of intimacy, also questioned the role of the spectator, with viewers often feeling a sense of unease as they became the unwitting collaborators in these violations of privacy. Moreover, the deliberately constructed and thus in one sense artificial nature of the documentary ‘evidence' used in Calle's work questioned the nature of all truths.
She is fascinated by the interface between our public lives and our private selves. This has led her to investigate patterns of behaviour using techniques akin to those of a private investigator, a psychologist, or a forensic scientist. It has also led her to investigate her own behaviour so that her life, as lived and as imagined, has informed many of her most interesting works.
Calle began working as an artist in the 1970s, after traveling the world for seven years. When she returned to Paris, the city in which she was born, she recalls feeling isolated and lost; this isolation inspired her to investigate the lives of the people around her. Her first photographs were of graves marked simply mother and father.
Although much of her work employs voyeurism, Calle has allowed her own life to be put on display as well. She became so intrigued by following her unwitting subjects that she wanted to reverse the relationship, and become the subject herself. She asked her mother to hire a private detective to follow her, without the detective knowing that she had arranged it, with the hopes that his investigation would provide photographic evidence of her existence.
One of her birthday parties serves as an important setting in French memoirist Grégoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest.