The Pensacola native takes to the rails to photograph a little-known youth subculture.
People have been attracted to pictures of freewheeling, down-at-heel youth ever since Ryan McGinley snapped his first picture of a teenage skateboarder. But Mike Brodie’s pictures are in another league; at 18, Brodie left his home in Pensacola, Florida and began hitchhiking rides on freight trains, crisscrossing across the country and photographing the strange, transient subculture of trainhopping and its itinerant followers.
He uploaded his Polaroids under the name Polaroidd Kid, and the pictures promptly went viral; you can figure the rest out from there. Now he’s one of the most exciting photographers of his generation. We spoke to him after his exhibition, A Brief Period of Juvenile Prosperity, at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York.
Tell us about the first time you hopped a train. Where’d you get the idea from?
I got the idea from a folk-punk song by a band called This Bike is A Pipe Bomb. The song is called Trains and Cops.
Where’s the furthest you’ve ever gone, or the most eventful ride you’ve had?
It was all one long train ride full of a lot of events, where to begin? Riding in the winter was nice, watching people ice fish on the Mississippi river in Minnesota!
What attracts you to that lifestyle of hopping trains?
Talk us through the process of hopping a train – any tips?
I think maybe you can find some tutorials online, if one can’t figure out how to get on a train and ride it, secretly, or if they lack the common sense or drive to figure it out they should probably stay off the trains.
You seem pretty drawn to people on the edge of society – squatters, addicts, etc – is that an accurate description?
I’m not drawn to addicts and for the most part I’ve kept my distance from drug users, I would not encourage anyone to do hard drugs. The key here is nobody really was a subject, this entire experience was and still is my life, I took photos of people in my life. I probably would have done it all without the camera but taking photos gave me a real sense of purpose.
Your photos seem authentic and gritty in a way that a lot of photography of youth culture isn’t. Is that something you think about at all?
No, it just comes naturally. My hands are always filthy and my clothes are always dirty, I can’t stay clean worth a damn.
What made you start taking photographs?
The instant gratification of the polaroid.
You graduated from mechanic school – do you feel like a professional artist at all?
Very far from, I think I would have to learn how to develop my own film and print my own photos to be “professional.”
Is there anything or anybody you’d love to photograph, but haven’t yet?
I really like old guys standing around heavy machinery, I would like to photograph that.
Where do you think you’ll be in five years time?
Probably still in California, working for the railroad, raising a kid, working on my house, savin money, you know, livin’ the dream.
You can view more of Mike Brodie’s photography on his website. mikebrodie.net
Words: Zing Tsjeng (Follow Zing on Twitter @misszing)