If you hadn’t seen Mike Brodie’s photographs when they first made the internet rounds in 2008, they are hard to miss now with his new book titled A Period of Juvenile Prosperity and several exhibitions with the same name. The beautiful and romantic photographs of natty, if dirty, young vagabond train hoppers -- cultural outsiders living a life of freedom most dare only fantasize about -- are captivating. As is Brodie himself. He hasn't simply documented the strange and lovely creatures of this life; he's one of them -- thus providing the authenticity the art world often craves. Born in 1985, he hopped his first train at 18 and began making portraits with a Polaroid camera he found in the back of a friend’s car. He was never trained in photography and called himself The Polaroid Kidd after the prolific boxcar tagger The Kodak Kidd. When Polaroid discontinued the film, he started shooting 35mm, and when he put the images on the internet the art world responded resoundingly. Then Brodie stopped making photographs to become a mechanic. It’s like art-world catnip – enticing and edgy subject matter, an embodiment of a spirit of youthful adventure, and an undeniably authentic photographer who has quit the art world right when interest is peaking. There is a lot here to talk about, but ultimately it all gets in the way of what actually makes the images in A Period of Juvenile Prosperity so special. None of it accounts for the power of Brodie’s photographic voice, which has been so thoughtfully distilled in the book from Twin Palms.
The book's selection sticks to Brodie's 35mm work and doesn't include any of the early Polaroids. It's carefully edited but with an easy hand, and everything feels designed to let the photographs speak for themselves. The image that wraps the book’s boards of two kids sleeping in a train car is arresting in its softness and intimacy, but also intriguing. You can’t help but notice the sleepers’ odd clothing and tattoos or the copy of The Rum Diaries under head. It provides a perfect entry point, and after a photograph that serves as endpaper we’re right into the images with little more than a title page. The book opens with what are ultimately Brodie’s most widely memorable photographs taken on or near trains. Outsider youth and the iconic American landscape share the frame. These images capture the sensation of freedom and adventure that easily draw people in, but they are also more personal than may be expected. This isn’t exactly a documentary project. Brodie has made images that are only possible when you’re really living the life, but he's also done so with a rare honesty. He photographs what he loves from instinct and his images draw you in. We are invited in to see what he sees, experience his life through his eyes. The images are both private and inviting, full of warmth but clearly made with a decisive eye. The preciousness of Polaroid film can make a very good teacher.
Part way through, trains are left behind and the experience of traveling comes into view. We see arrests and injuries, portraits of a few outsiders, members of Brodie’s community in squats, the interiors of cars. They are grim in places, and for all the romanticism of the photographs on trains, these later images ground the project. There’s vitality in a life like this; the community is close but the threat is as real as the adventure. The title feels apt. Brodie’s work has frequently been placed it in the context of the American travel icons like Huck Finn and Kerouac. It’s not a perfect fit, but they are kindred to what this book draws out. These are not photographs taken by jumping in front of the action, but from within it, from the experience of travel. The images in the book come off like stolen glances, memories made while the world is moving by, making it feel diaristic. It’s a feeling aided by Brodie’s essay that closes the photographs, which reads a bit like a confession – a rundown of critical life moments rather than a statement about the work. It's perfect -- given the lack of art-world ambition, we couldn't ask for anything more. Twin Palms made a good call by letting it remain the only text.
I could write a whole other essay on Brodie’s outsider status, how half the art world has gobbled up him and his work while the other half seems slightly miffed. I really like Brodie’s work. My life has never included train hopping, but I recognize these kids. They’ve been part of my community, slept on my couch when rambling through town. I understand the urge to take these photographs. From the impression of him I’ve gathered from interviews, Brodie seems to have a solid enough idea of himself and a true enough understanding of his own fulfillment that I don’t think he’ll bend from pressure to make a photographic project out of anything other than passion. If he chooses to take pictures again, I’d love to see them. But if not, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity is enough.
Sarah Bradley is a writer, sculptor, costumer and general maker of things currently living in Santa Fe, NM. Some of her work can be seen on her occasionally updated blog. She has been employed by photo-eye since 2008 and is Editor of photo-eye Blog and Magazine.