Portfolio: Indecent exposure

Hustler-come-photographer Mark Morrisroe turned the raw materials of his brief life into a body of extraordinary work
When Mark Morrisroe's short life ended in 1989, there were only a few tributes to him, mostly from friends and contemporaries from art college such as Nan Goldin. Few were surprised that Morrisroe didn't live long enough to see his success. For although he shone bright, Morrisroe's life was, in the end, messy and anarchic. Diagnosed as HIV positive, at a time before protease inhibitors, he knew that he didn't have time on his side. "Mark was an outlaw on every front - sexually, socially and artistically," Goldin says, "with a deep distrust of his own uniqueness." He was a seminal influence for many of these contemporaries and two books about him are due out soon - a semi-fictionalised account of his life and times by Ramsay McPhillips called Am I Dead Yet?, and a monograph of his brooding, elegiac work.

That Morrisroe succeeded in leaving behind him an astonishing body of work, mostly in the form of Polaroids, is something of a miracle - the odds, he believed, were stacked against him leaving anything other than the shortest vapour trail. On his death, 2,000 Polaroids were found stuffed in tins, together with other photographs, some paintings and Super-8 films. Most of all there are self-portraits, hundreds of them, that are comical, tragic, theatrical and hazily romantic. Such a sustained document of self- examination is not unique in photography, but is distinguished by its honesty and cool detachment, and was endlessly fascinating to the rootless, semi-orphaned Morrisroe because in the end, out of all the faces he recognised, his own came across as the most unfamiliar.

Born to a drug-addicted Boston prostitute, Morrisroe claimed that the father he never knew was Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler. But Morrisroe claimed many things, because lying extravagantly helped him cope with life, and reinvention was by far the largest part of his photographic armoury. He ran away from home at 13, was taken in by hustlers and lived out his life on the streets; he was, he claimed, shot in the back by a client, which left him with a limp. He won a place at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where he was a disruptive presence whose lifestyle was central to his art - exhibitionism, drug abuse, cross-dressing and self-invention.

His last years were spent in and out of hospital with such increasing frequency that he constructed a darkroom in the ward shower and took pictures of his own X-rays. For one of his last projects, when he could do little else, he lay down on large sheets of photographic paper brushed with chemicals. What came out was a blurry profile suggesting somebody was once there but had moved on, leaving behind a faint outline, like a vapour trail.

The monograph, `Mark Morrisroe', is published by Twelvetrees Press in America, and will be distributed in the UK from January 2000 by ArtData, priced pounds 48

`I Dream of Jeannie (Stephen Tashjian's Head)', 1983-85 `Untitled (Embrace)', 1985

The American critic Peter Schjeldahl has suggested that Morrisroe was a "scuzzy kid with good luck in friends". On the whole they were photography-biased, such as Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Jack Pierson and Philip Lorca diCorcia. All of them have achieved the fame that was denied Morrisroe during his life- the furthest out of all of them. Goldin's retrospective at the Whitney in New York a few years ago was one of the best attended shows it has ever mounted, while Lorca diCorcia has shown at the city's Museum of Modern Art. Among the photographers was a lone drag/performance artist called Stephen Tashijan, known as Tabboo!, who flourished at a time when Boston had seen very few, if any, artists of his ilk before. He started his career by organising a dance at the Museum of Fine Arts for a group of burly men dressed in cast-off ballgowns. He later appeared in the film Wigstock.

`Untitled (Self-portrait)', c1980

"His face," recalls his friend David Armstrong, "was out of this world." Morrisroe's self-portraits make up the bulk of the relics he left behind. Part-documentary, part-highly stylised posturing, they try hard to find romance in a dirty world. With this visual diary, he struggled to make sense of his fractured background and disjointed lifestyle. The former "punk-drag genie of the scene", as one friend put it, the "New Wave Narcissus", Morrisroe assumed various identities in pursuit of his own true self. He was Mark Dirt, fanzine editor (he loved to give out tips on buying wigs); he was Sweet Raspberry, a maudlin drag queen down on her luck; he was Morrisroe, boy prostitute and artist, a Rimbaudian genius convinced of his own singular importance.

`Fascination', 1982

`Untitled (Portrait Head Shot of a Man)', 1983

Fascination may be a self-portrait, although the figure on the bed has been identified as "Jonathan". Of course, it's possible that Jonathan and Mark Morrisroe are one and the same, another of the artist's assumed personae in his games of self-invention. Whoever he is, his face is at the centre of the picture, the focus of Morrisroe's gaze and, in his longing to be loved, he becomes - as one critic put it - "the mirror of all the photographer's traits". A true self-portrait then. The subtext - the cat and the bird - is a potential domestic mini-tragedy, or a game played out many times before, but Morrisroe stills the action for ever and, as in so much that he left behind, he keeps the viewer guessing. To heighten the drama, Morrisroe double-exposed the frame, and also employed a number of photographic devices, such as blurring, foreshortening and cropping, mimicking a fin de siecle romanticism. In order to age prematurely his often tiny photographs, he scratched their surfaces, stained them or otherwise distressed them, such as Untitled (Portrait Head Shot of a Man), giving them the texture of objects stumbled upon by chance, relics lucky to have survived.

`Untitled (Double Self- Portrait in Drag)', c1980

A fixture on the drag circuit, Morrisroe took part in several home movies as Shelley, "The Laziest Girl in Town", but took pains to make himself as unfeminine as possible: "It surprised me when I finally saw him in drag," recalled his friend Stephen, aka Miss Popcorn, "that he was so ugly. A mess." Frequently he gave his pictures an ironical professional polish by titling them in large, if clumsy, letters. In some cases he gave them imaginary copyright symbols or numbers from an edition run, just like art from a gallery. He realised early on that he would have to fight hard to be accepted as an artist, a status in conventional terms which he despised, but felt he could not live without.

`Sandy', 1982

Friends, lovers, roommates and rivals, they were all the subject-matter of Morrisroe's work, as they were of his contemporaries from art college in Boston, but the treatments varied dramatically from artist to artist. In Morrisroe's signature colour photographs, he mixes a raw, relentless diaristic style with mannerist pictorialism, manipulating the images through techniques such as painting, retouching, toning and blurring, often creating magical effects.