The Photography of Poet Arthur Rimbaud (1883)


Arthur Rim­baud, far-see­ing prodi­gy, “has been memo­ri­al­ized in song and sto­ry as few in his­to­ry,” writes Wyatt Mason in an intro­duc­tion to the poet’s com­plete works; “the thumb­nail of his leg­end has proved irre­sistible.” The poet, we often hear, end­ed his brief but bril­liant lit­er­ary career when he ran off to the Horn of Africa and became a gun­run­ner… or some oth­er sort of adven­tur­ous out­law char­ac­ter many miles removed, it seems, from the intense sym­bol­ist hero of Illu­mi­na­tions and A Sea­son in Hell.


Rim­baud’s break with poet­ry was so deci­sive, so abrupt, that crit­ics have spent decades try­ing to account for what one “hyper­bol­ic assess­ment” deemed as hav­ing “caused more last­ing, wide­spread con­ster­na­tion than the break-up of the Bea­t­les.” What could have caused the young lib­er­tine, so drawn to urban voyeurism and the skew­er­ing of the local bour­geoisie, to dis­ap­pear from soci­ety for an anony­mous, root­less life?


On the oth­er hand, in revis­it­ing the poet­ry we find—amidst the grotesque, hal­lu­cino­genic reveries—that “trav­el, adven­ture, and depar­ture on var­i­ous lev­els are the­mat­ic con­cerns that run through much of Rim­baud”: from 1871’s “The Drunk­en Boat” to A Sea­son in Hell’s “Farewell,” in which the poet writes, “The time has come to bury my imag­i­na­tion and my mem­o­ries! A fit­ting end for an artist and teller of tales.”


He was only 18 then, in 1873, when he wrote his farewell. Two years lat­er, he would final­ly end his vio­lent tumul­tuous rela­tion­ship with Paul Ver­laine, and embark on a series of voy­ages, first by foot all over Europe, then to the Dutch East Indies, Cyprus, Yemen, and final­ly Abyssinia (mod­ern day Ethiopia), where he set­tled in Harar, struck up a friend­ship with the gov­er­nor (the father of future Emper­or Haile Selassie), and became a high­ly-regard­ed cof­fee trad­er, and yes, gun deal­er.


Rim­baud may have left poet­ry behind, decid­ing he had real­ized all he could in lan­guage. But he had not giv­en up on approach­ing his expe­ri­ence aes­thet­i­cal­ly. Only, instead of try­ing “to invent new flow­ers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues,” as he wrote in “Farewell,” he had evi­dent­ly decid­ed to take the world in on its own terms. He doc­u­ment­ed his find­ings in essays on geog­ra­phy and trav­el accounts and, in 1883, sev­er­al pho­tographs, includ­ing two self-por­traits he sent to his moth­er in May, writ­ing, “Enclosed are two pho­tographs of me which I took.”


You can see one of those por­traits at the top of the post, and the oth­er, in much worse shape, below it, and a third self-por­trait just below. The “cir­cum­stances in which the pho­tographs were tak­en are quite mys­te­ri­ous,” writes Lucille Pen­nel at The Eye of Pho­tog­ra­phy.

Start­ing in 1882, Rim­baud became fas­ci­nat­ed with the new tech­nol­o­gy. He ordered a cam­era in Lyon in order to illus­trate a book on “Harar and the Gal­las coun­try,” a cam­era he received only in ear­ly 1883. He also ordered spe­cial­ized books and pho­to pro­cess­ing equip­ment. The planned sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tion was nev­er real­ized, and the six pho­tographs are the only trace of Rimbaud’s activ­i­ty.

“I am not yet well estab­lished, nor aware of things,” Rim­baud wrote in the let­ter to his moth­er, “But I will be soon, and I will send you some inter­est­ing things.” It’s not exact­ly clear why Rim­baud aban­doned his pho­to­graph­ic endeav­ors. He had approached the pur­suit not only as hob­by, but also as a com­mer­cial ven­ture, writ­ing in his let­ter, “Here every­one wants to be pho­tographed. They even offer one guinea a pho­to­graph.”

The com­ment leads Pen­nel to con­clude “there must have been oth­er pho­tographs, but any trace of them is lost, rais­ing doubts about the degree of Rimbaud’s engage­ment with pho­tog­ra­phy.”


Per­haps, how­ev­er, he’d sim­ply decid­ed that he’d done all he could do with the medi­um, and let it go with a grace­ful farewell. His­to­ry, pos­ter­i­ty, the cement­ing of a reputation—these are phe­nom­e­na that seemed of lit­tle inter­est to Rim­baud. “What will become of the world when you leave?” he had writ­ten in “Youth, IV”—“No mat­ter what hap­pens, no trace of now will remain.” In a his­tor­i­cal irony, Rimbaud’s pho­tographs “were devel­oped in ‘filthy water,’” notes Pen­nel, mean­ing they “will con­tin­ue to fade until the images are all gone. They are as fleet­ing as the man with the soles of wind.”

If we wish to see them in per­son, the time is short. The pho­to at the top of the post now resides at the Bib­lio­thèque Nationale de France. The oth­er six are housed at the Arthur Rim­baud Muse­um in Charleville-Méz­ières.

via Vin­tage Anchor/The Eye of Pho­tog­ra­phy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Brief Won­drous Career of Arthur Rim­baud (1870–1874)

Great 19 Cen­tu­ry Poems Read in French: Baude­laire, Rim­baud, Ver­laine & More

Pat­ti Smith’s Polaroids of Arti­facts from Vir­ginia Woolf, Arthur Rim­baud, Rober­to Bolaño & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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