"I found an address book on the Rue des Martyrs. I decided to photocopy the contents before sending it back anonymously to its owner, whose address is inscribed on the endpaper. I will contact the people whose names are noted down… Thus, I will get to know this man through his friends and acquaintances." -- Sophie Calle
It is not often that one can honestly describe a photobook as 'a page-turner,' however beautiful or well-designed it might be. Yet I found myself taking this small, modest volume out on the subway - snatching the opportunity to read another entry - or picking it up in the middle of reading another book, to find out what might next be revealed about film-maker 'Pierre D,' the unsuspecting subject of Calle's controversial investigation.
The Address Book is structured in a particularly appealing way; the bite-sized, journalistic, yet periodically lyrical, texts here were originally published as a daily column in French newspaper Libération, appearing from 23 August – 4 September 1983, and retain their snappy, anecdotal appeal even in translation. These short, diaristic entries are digestible and fascinating in themselves, but it is their relationship with the images in the book that is the most engaging part of the work. For the most part, these are black-and-white photographs of street scenes, rooms, objects and, very occasionally, people – uncaptioned and unattributed. The single exception is a colour reproduction of Paul Delaroche's The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1909), which, it is revealed on the following page, relates to a postcard sent by Pierre to a friend in Paris ('What a masterpiece. See you soon, Pierre.') Characteristically, the image and text are not placed in such emphatically close relation that you can shirk or avoid inspecting the image closely when it first appears.
This image is, however, exceptional in that it relates so directly and explicably to Calle's text and her encounters with Pierre's various acquaintances. For the most part, images bear only fleeting thematic relevance to the text – an unanswered phone hangs next to two empty chairs in a neglected hallway, opposite text that documents Calle's early, failed attempts to contact her sources - or their status is complicated, their authenticity and relevance made uncertain. Documents that Calle refers to in her account of Pierre D., such as a letter of resignation she has supposedly sourced, are not illustrated. Other, more fleeting moments – a woman relates how Pierre D. laughed as she fell and dropped a shoe - are (in this case, by a film-still-like close-up of a woman's feet in white shoes). Such an image is a kind of 'fictional' counterpart to a remembered event and casts doubt, or at least a shadow of it, back into the written account as a result, so that 'fictionality' becomes part of the character of the text in a manner reminiscent of W.G. Sebald's use of photography in cultural memoirs such as Rings of Saturn.
This troubling, fictionalizing approach to a real individual and, at least from one point of view, a very real intrusion onto their privacy, contributes to a guilty sense that one should not, perhaps, be reading Calle's book at all. Indeed, there is a reason that this book is only now appearing, 30 years after the work's original, and infamous, appearance, in an English edition – once Pierre D. was aware of Calle's column he threatened to sue Libération and relented only when the paper had published nude photographs of Calle as a kind of (questionable) counterpart to her own project. However, it is a game with which the artist is familiar – one of her best-known works, The Hotel (1981), consists of photographs taken of hotel rooms and their intimate contents, whilst employed as a chambermaid – and in which she is adept. She encourages the reader's curiosity, even invites you to enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of peeling back layer after layer of Pierre D.'s life. The intelligent design of The Address Book not only approximates its namesake and original – 'a 12 x 15cm bound book… has a red cover with a black spine' – but has the secondary function of enhancing your uncertainty, perhaps even your embarrassment, at reading such a personal exercise, by referencing the anonymity of erotic novels and magazines. The twist, of course, is that you learn very little of Pierre D. in the book, beyond (often conflicting) memories, fragmentary anecdotes and references to 'character' and appearance.
This is why, in the end, it makes sense to review The Address Book as a photobook specifically, instead of a conceptual artwork or simply an artist's book. This is not a lavishly illustrated volume of technically accomplished photography, nor is it strictly a work of photo-documentary, constructing a narrative out of sequencing or clever compositional effect. Calle herself has been frank about her relationship to photography - she doesn't always take her own photographs – and critics including Yves Alain-Bois have commented on the apparent inadequacy of the results, 'you can expect no revelation.' However, this book could not function without its photographic backbone – the mysterious, expressive images Calle uses and the interrogation of subjectivity and authenticity they make explicit.
Faye Robson is an editor of illustrated books, currently based in London, UK. She has worked on photobooks for publishers including Aperture Foundation, New York and Phaidon Press, London, and writes a photo-blog called PLATE.