Mike Brodie

Mike Brodie

Ridin' The Railroad — HUCK catches up with Mike Brodie, the mysterious train-hopping 'Polaroid Kidd'.

Mike Brodie, a photographer with the nickname ‘The Polaroid Kidd’, hurtled out of obscurity in the mid-noughties with a folio that blew the art establishment’s mind.

He was just eighteen when he found an old instant camera in his girlfriend’s car and then hopped on a night freight train heading away from his home in Pensacola, Florida. But the beautiful shots of bohemia that he returned with were like colourful capsules from another planet. His book, A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity, shot throughout 2007 and 2008, is an epic collection of the people and places he’s met on his dusty travels.

HUCK caught up with Brodie recently to find out more about the mythical subjects and scenes he captures and documents.

HUCK: You’ve been shooting photos since you were eighteen – why wait till now to put out a book?
Mike Brodie: Well, I chose to put out a book about four years ago but it just takes a long time. My friend Paul [Schiek, of TBW Books] has been helping a lot with it and we’ve just been taking our time to make sure everything’s perfect.

Do you feel a sense of distance from the photos because they were taken so long ago?
Yeah, I remember them happening but I feel very disconnected from them at the same time. They make me feel pretty intense when I look at the prints. I see a lot of things in the photos that I’ve never seen before. They just look different when they’re printed.

What is it you try to capture with your photos?
I’m always daydreaming about what I want to photograph in my head. It usually involves being out in nature and away from people, just with my friends, partying and being idiots. So I take photos of that, most of the time, just for fun. I’m constantly daydreaming about different trips I want to take and different places I want to be and new scenes that I want to see.

And that usually takes you outside the confines of the city?
Naturally, me and my friends rebel against urban life. I just want to know a lot more about nature. Living in the city can be depressing. A lot of kids are growing up, myself included, out of touch with nature. I spend most of my time in cities, and cities are cool, but I want to know more about the world; nature, plants and animals.

But you seem fascinated with anything old and industrial too?
Anything old is interesting because it has character, y’know? It has a whole story, a whole life. It’s kind of sad when things start to rot, but they become way more interesting. It’s easy to be intrigued by abandoned infrastructure or industry and see beauty in it. I really like things that work too. I really like things that are functional. I went to mechanics school and I worked on the railroad full-time for a while, but I quit last year. I think it’s good to have skills aside from artistic things like photography. I wanted to have a trade and a skill that was applicable to other things in life. Maybe I’ll go back down that path in the future – that skill will always be there.

What makes you want to travel?
I grew up riding BMX and I was always doing things illegally; sneaking around and running from security. I was always exploring and biking and finding new places to ride; running and moving and climbing and knowing something might happen at any moment. So I guess that developed into my curiosity for travelling, seeing more of the country and riding freight trains. I definitely transitioned into that because of BMX. I’m just a curious person and it’s just fun to go out on adventures and trips. It doesn’t have to be on a train, you can just get in a pick-up truck and drive across the state, or drive across the country. I like that sense of adventure and moving and looking at the world around you. Just like what the people in old country songs sing about.

Is there a big train-hopping community? Is it dangerous?
Hopping trains is dangerous but I think it’s more dangerous to drive to work on the interstate. Traffic is way more unpredictable. With a train, you’re on a set course and it’s up to you whether you get injured or not. Your safety is up to you. There’s a really big community of people who hop trains, all over North America, and other parts of the world too. But most of it stems from US subculture. I have a big peer group who do it and there are a bunch of older people, who did it before me. People aren’t thinking about it, so they don’t notice. It happens under the radar a lot of the time. But as long as there have been trains, there have been people hopping them.

Your photos seem to suggest a different way of life. Are you frustrated by the way the world is?
I’ve always wanted to do the opposite to anything conventional. I guess I’m frustrated by responsibility. Why do I need to pay lots of bills? Why do I need so much stuff? I want to figure out how I can live easy and still be productive and positive and a good person. So I end up going against conventional ways of living I guess. I travel because it’s fun and there’s always an end point; like a person I care about. And when I get to where I’m going it feels good because it took a lot of work. I guess I like doing things the hard way. Maybe it’s more satisfying that way? I have this big map where I draw on train lines that I’ve ridden. It’s really satisfying finding new lines and drawing them on.

Do you think more people have been pushed to the outskirts of society because of the economic crisis?
The economy will and has pushed a lot more people on the outskirts of society; whether it’s families consolidating in one home, or just people living with less. I live in Oakland, California, and you see people everywhere, just sleeping outside. I think it does push people out more. Once people have less money.

Your photos are more fine art than documentary but is photojournalism something you’d be interested in doing?
Maybe in the future I will look back and write more about the experiences I’ve had. [My photography is] not documentary because it’s mostly just the life that happens around me. Maybe in the future I’ll do more documentary and I’ll go somewhere to photograph a certain thing, that I’m not necessarily a part of. I’m interested in photographing anything but usually it has to involve some kind of train or truck or highway. I like spending time with most people and hearing their stories and maybe taking a photo and seeing what I get. I like just having fun and exploring things for myself. I wouldn’t necessarily seek out trying to photograph homeless people, but if that happened it’s okay.

Are you inspired by other photographers?
Oh yeah. Jacob Holdt, he photographed in the sixties using this really cheap camera that cost thirty bucks. And he just photographed racism in America, and those photos are really cool. I think he was from Denmark. He’s really inspiring. I’m just inspired by National Geographic magazine – I like all of that. There are a lot of other photographers too.

Would you say your photos are kind of celebrating experience over material things?
Oh yeah definitely. Experience is definitely better than just having things and it’s fun to experience things with friends and people you care about, share stories and stuff like that. I’ve never wanted to be rich or have a lot of things. There are things that I like that are really cool and expensive that I wish I had but I know that it’s unreasonable for my life. But I can appreciate people’s interest in those things, I’m not going to judge someone for whatever reasons, I still like having things. Experience over material possession, I’m glad that’s conveyed in the photos. I’m not trying to convey anything with my photography, I just like to take pictures and see how they come out. Other people can paint a picture of what they think it means. Kind of how you listen to a song and decide what it means to you. It’s cool that way. I would like anyone to interpret my photos however they want. I’m not sure what it all quite means. These photos are an open story. There’ll be time for narrative in the future; I’ll share more about certain individuals as time passes. Right now, it doesn’t really matter.

What are your plans for the future?
This year is pretty crazy for various reasons. I have a couple of photo exhibitions lined up that I’m really looking forward to that will coincide with the book release. And I’m going to three weddings and my dad’s getting out of prison; he’s been in prison for eight-and-a-half years. I have a lot of travel plans with friends including going to Detroit, Michigan, going to Mexico. I’m looking forward to having a good time this year and getting some things done. And making enough money to pay my rent. I live in Oakland, California. It’s pretty fun but it’s kind of crappy. I live close to the train yard so it’s nice to be around the trains a lot and my roommate works for the railroad so it’s nice to hear his stories about working. I’m in the city but we’re really close to nice nature. There’s a lot to do here.

A Period of Juvenile Prosperity is out on Twin Palms.

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