A Period of Juvenile Prosperity
(Twin Palms Publishers, 2013)
A Period of Juvenile Prosperity collects the images of a young, untrained photographer named Mike Brodie, who for several years wandered back and forth across the country by freight train and documented the people he encountered along the way. The 64 color plates suffuse light and color into instances of a rough and migratory life, and they alternate between the blurry rush of train travel and the stillness of waiting, riding above rusted couplings or sleeping in overgrown rail embankments. The mood is nostalgic, but there is something explicitly contemporary about the images, perhaps because they are born of times more prosperous than lean. Brodie’s travelers were not driven to wander by economic collapse. They chose, in that young and quintessentially American way, the freedom of a transitory existence over the limitations of a middle class or working poor existence. The photos evoke Dorothea Lange’s portraits from the Great Depression—the period Brodie’s fellow travelers seem to embrace in fashion and mode of transit. True, the poverty they chose is real, as is the dirt and the danger, but it also seems romantic in a way that is hard to parse. Are the photos of a romantic lifestyle, or are they themselves romantic and the lifestyle impoverished?
In the early 2000s, Brodie was traveling around the country and posting his photos on the Internet under the sobriquet “The Polaroid Kidd.” He was young then—just out of his late teens—and his images appeared at a time particularly enraptured with underground and outlaw cultures; street art, renegade flotillas and steampunk circuses all flourished on the periphery of the mainstream, as artists like Duke Riley, Barry McGee, and Swoon were bridging these subcultures with the commercial art world. In that era, Brodie’s subjects resonated not as society’s outcasts—downtrodden and dispassionately observed, like Lange’s iterant workers—but as adventurers in the endless golden hour of America’s rural-industrial lands. They were following in the footsteps of several generations of young Americans, who found some answers in drifting from one end of the continent to the other. Clambering onto trains, sleeping rough, bound together by loyalty and love, these wandering youth abandoned the mainstream in the late 1990s and early 2000s—a time sodden with dotcom money and neoliberalism—in favor of a nomadic existence.
This opposition is evident throughout the book. In the first plate, a traveler stands on an overpass with a bag of dumpstered vegetables over his shoulder, looking almost longingly at a black locomotive on the tracks below. In the background, a black luxury car emerges from the haze as it crosses the overpass in the other direction. Brodie skewed the photo so that the traveler is between the two vehicles, gazing at one and turning away from the other.
This seems to be the crux of Brodie’s work—abandoning one life to discover another. In a string of laconic sentences that serves as his artist’s statement, Brodie details the life he left behind: a Pensacola, Florida childhood full of alcoholism, illness, poverty, and a father in and out of jail. (“He wrestled five cops in our kitchen; there was pepper spray all over my bedroom door.”) Nevertheless, he also describes the antipodes he discovered in adolescence: punk, tattoos, love, freight hopping, and a Polaroid camera with which to document these new worlds. When Polaroid stopped making film, he switched to a Nikon (which he used for all the images in this book). He made friends with Paul Schiek, who promoted his work and eventually introduced him to Jack Woody at Twin Palms Press.
In 2008 Brodie received the prestigious Baum Award for American Emerging Artists. It earned him recognition as an outsider talent, but also brought criticism that he was exploiting poverty’s cachet, and train-hopping culture in general. This is unfair. Brodie is not glamorizing poverty, because for him there was a wild richness to those years. His photos capture a peripheral experience with attention and intimacy, more a reflection of feelings and experiences than photographic technique. Even the title suggests a prosperous time full of friends and adventures, a lifestyle that challenges conventional notions of value and success. A melancholy haunts the book, as if, even while receiving recognition as a photographer, Brodie feels that he has lost something since he stopped roaming and taking pictures.
It is interesting to take Brodie’s work against that of, say, Ryan McGinley, who also came out of alternative youth cultures. McGinley achieved fame documenting the skateboarding and graffiti subcultures of late-1990s and early-2000s New York. He was no outsider, though—or if he was, he was an outsider looking for a way in. He studied at Parsons School of Design and made handmade books of his photography, which he distributed to powerful figures in the art world. He was strategic as well as talented, and created work in the epicenter of cultural production. Brodie, on the other hand, existed on the literal and virtual periphery, shooting haphazardly and distributing his images online while drifting from place to place.
In one photograph, a young traveler hangs off a freight carriage over the tracks racing below, holding on with one hand while raising a begrimed middle finger with the other. His shirt is open and his body taut—his whole presentation, from clothes to posture, a defiant act. But it is also an aesthetic act of defiance, and this is what Brodie’s subjects have in common with McGinley’s. They understand that youth, even outside mainstream or materialist culture,is not purely embodied but also partially performed. They are, as Sylvia Wolf wrote of McGinley’s young subjects, “willing collaborators.” That is not to diminish the photo’s documentary value but to look at them in the context of the fantasy they represent. McGinley was able to leverage these fantasies into a commercial career, selling youthfulness frozen in time; Brodie did not.
Some of the kids Brodie rode with will probably never stop drifting, and their lives will be hard, as the energy and romance of youth fade. Some will move onto other things, leaving their hobo days behind, kept only as recollections. Train hoppers travel under road names and use grease markers to scrawl them across the sides of rolling stock. This graffiti is not a means to fame or renown but simply a mark that a traveler was briefly there. Brodie’s photos feel like that. They are not made for accolades or money. They are a mark or record of Brodie’s youth, of the people he traveled with and the places he saw. When he stopped riding rails (to study diesel mechanics), he stopped taking photographs. It is as if he could not disentangle the two and can only reflect on his train-hopping life through the images he collected. A Period of Juvenile Prosperity is a window into that reflection: alluring, bittersweet, and cast in the light of hard traveled days gone by.