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On the Trail of Arthur Rimbaud

Photographer Yan Datessen’s book AR, published by LOCO, the retraces Arthur Rimbaud’s journeys.
Yan Datessen
Ethiopia, Harar © Yan Datessen

Yann Datessen traveled extensively on the trail of Arthur Rimbaud: “Rimbaud was a genius, nobody denies that; but Rimbaud was also a bastard, an infernal whore, a kid biting the hand that fed him, a loner, as lonely as no man had ever been lonely, an explorer whose courage verged on suicide. Rimbaud an arms dealer? That too; maybe even a murderer, a stubborn commoner, and an unhinged slave driver. Rimbaud was all that, sometimes even his own opposite.”

Datessen is part of “what we call the Rimbardie,” and like any self-respecting member of this community, one fine day he was hanging around Charleville-Mézières, Brussels, or Marseille…. “Until, one morning,” he recounts, “not really sure why, I felt the irresistible need to see everything, to go everywhere where it was possible to find Rimbaud. Rimbaud surely was a pretext, a pretext for taking a hike, for getting away, for going astray.” 

Yan Datessen
France, Ardennes, Givet © Yan Datessen
Yan Datessen
France, Marseille © Yan Datessen

To start with, from 2016 to 2020, Yann Detessen photographed “Ardennes schools and military establishments to portray teenagers from various backgrounds: more-or-less well-to-do colleges in city centers, technical or agricultural high schools at the outskirts, military barracks, institutions of vocational rehabilitation, anything, because making an inventory of the kids in the region was, it seemed to me, the best way to materialize a shadow. I hadn’t yet understood that shadow was the opposite of image, and that capturing a glance here, a pout there, an Ardennes frown, wasn’t enough.”

He then traveled across Europe: Belgium, the Gotthard Pass, London, Italy, and down to Africa, Ethiopia, and then back to Marseille where the poet died. “I respected the chronology of Rimbaud’s own journey across these regions: from his first escapades around Ardennes to the final explorations in Abyssinia, I stuck to his life’s itinerary. It seemed fundamental to me to experience the progression towards emptiness on my own skin, from city din to the vertigo of the desert.” On these journeys, Datessen happened “sometimes to address someone out loud, especially in moments of discouragement or when arriving in front of some Rimbaldian landmark, these sites I had long fantasized about. I can’t tell you if it was ‘him’ [Arthur Rimbaud] I was speaking to or another.”

Yan Datessen
England, London © Yan Datessen

In AR, the photographer assembles a series of landscapes, portraits, still lifes, “above all to create a sense of rhythm: to alternate intense glances and contemplation, asides and objectivity, vanitas and horizons. I went poking around in the three great genres of the still image that allow for a wider narration, that generate rhizomes, and explore the subsoil of the subject.” Rimbaud’s mystery persists, but with his images, these “Rimbaldian misinterpretations,” Yann Datessen crossed continents and encountered the other: “If there is one thing that remains, for sure that would be … walking, walking in the shadow, because walking is not sitting, and not sitting is key.” 

Yann Datessen, AR, Editions Loco, 96 pp., €35

Yan Datessen
Belgium, Brussels © Yan Datessen

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