Deserted by his parents at a young age, subjected to abuse by his supposed caregivers, a New Jersey teenager finally has no option but to drop out of school and run away to New York City where he survives, barely and dangerously, as a street hustler. Now in his mid-20s and trying to make his way as an artist he embarks on a project that takes him back to many of the locations where he used to sell his body for sex: “the places I had hung out in as a kid,” he later explains, “the places I starved in or haunted.” The premise is simple: have friends pose for photographs while wearing a life-size mask of the poet Arthur Rimbaud. For the mask he uses a photograph of the 17-year-old Rimbaud that he found on the cover of an English translation of Illuminations.
In all its late-1970s derelict glory, New York provides a striking backdrop for the series. Dressed scrappily in denim vests, leather jackets and T-shirts, the Rimbaud impersonators—all of whom seem to be male—are photographed in front of 42nd Street porn theaters, standing among workers transporting carcasses in the meatpacking district, sitting in graffiti-scarred subway cars, visiting a deserted Coney Island, eating in diners, lurking on decaying piers, and lounging in grungy apartments. While in most of the images the masked protagonists are doing nothing in particular, a few of the photographs depict more specific actions: taking a piss, masturbating, shooting up.
For the artist, the project has a strong autobiographical component, which is reinforced by the fact that he was born exactly 100 years after Rimbaud, and that both he and the French poet were teenage runaways. While making the photographs, which occupy him for some 12 months, the darkness of his early years in the city seems uncomfortably close: “I felt, at that time,” he later recalled, “that I wanted it to be the last thing I did before I ended up back on the streets, or died or disappeared.” Although it is far from “the last thing” he does, these photographs eerily connect to one morbid coincidence: both the artist and Rimbaud die at the same age: 37.