Press - Yossi Milo Gallery
Mike Brodie, “#3102” (2007)/Courtesy M+B gallery
“Harrison abstains from sharing his last name,” Brodie told me of the subject of this photo. “His
credit card has a band aid covering his identity. A lot has changed since I took this. We were
traveling through the Florida countryside. He has on women’s clothing in this photo. Not sure
Mike Brodie’s Photos Capture People,
Places and Time on the Move
By Joe Nolan on January 29, 2015
Mike Brodie was given a Polaroid camera in 2004, and shortly after left
Pensacola, Florida, at the age of 18, to travel the country. He spent five
years hitchhiking and jumping trains all over the country, creating an
archive of documentary photographs between 2004 and 2008. Brodie—
a.k.a. The Polaroid Kidd—lived in Nashville for a time and graduated
from Nashville Auto Diesel College, which is now, fittingly, called the
Lincoln College of Technology. I write “fittingly” because Brodie’s great
theme is the transience of faces and places over time—reminding the
viewer that all photographs are of the past, and often the lost. People
leave home, colleges change their names, and even a gifted artist like
Brodie has ended up putting down his camera in order to be a mobile
diesel mechanic in Oakland, California, where he works out of his ’93
Although Brodie has quit making photographs, Twin Palms has just
published images he made between 2004 and 2006 in a seemingelegiac new tome, Tones of Dirt and Bone, which serves as a kind of
prequel to the photographer’s breakthrough monograph, A Period of
Juvenile Prosperity (Twin Palms, 2013). Brodie’s studied portraits and
landscapes reveal quite a precious sensibility, especially given the
limitations of Polaroid photography. The images have a ritualistic quality,
bringing a crackling intensity to the melancholy happenings he
The people in Brodie’s portraits don’t smile much. They don’t snarl or
frown much either. They mostly stare at the camera the same way you
might stare at the horizon from the top of a boxcar with your world in your
pockets and a face full of wind. The woman depicted in Accident smiles
just enough for the close-up shot to capture her missing front teeth and
her scraped cheek. Her face is framed in the furry hood of an Eskimo
coat and it’s hard to tell whether her blue lips are bruised or painted or
cold. The little boy in Ayvn. Pensacola, FL also stares at the camera, yet
he is hiding behind his mother. Only her arm is visible—it’s decorated
with a tattoo of children holding hands as they dance in a circle.
Brodie’s haunted faces reflect the haunted places he’s traveled through.
His landscapes are sometimes anxiety-inducing in their expansiveness,
which is exaggerated by the height and speed of his train-top
perspective. When he’s on his feet, some of that novelty is gone, but
Brodie still manages to capture the melancholic sensation of passing
time, as in the image of a foggy alley in Olympia, Washington.
The photographs in Tones of Dirt and Bone were shot with Polaroid’s
Time Zero film, which was phased out between 2005 and 2006. The film
was named for its faster-developing chemicals, producing images with
richer, brighter colors. Come to think of it, “Fast and Bright” would be a
pretty good name for a quick-lighting candle—the kind that Brodie or one
of his traveling companions might burn at both ends.
F R I D A Y ,
A P R I L
2 4 ,
2 0 1 5
Book Review: Tones of Dirt and Bone
By Sarah Bradley
Tones of Dirt and Bone is the second monograph from Twin Palms and Mike Brodie, and despite its later release, the
photographs were made prior to the work of the 2013 release, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. These are the Mike Brodie
images that first floated around the internet, a series of Polaroid photographs made with an SX-70, the work that provided
his moniker, The Polaroid Kidd. It is composed mostly of portraits and still-lifes, though perhaps they’d be more
satisfactorily described as details or small moments — instincts honed with a Polaroid camera that make some of what’s
in A Period of Juvenile Prosperity so distinct. But they are different books; Tones of Dirt and Bone is quieter, softer.
In a short interview in i-D, Brodie mentioned that his camera kept him in the role of observer, but it seems likely that the
camera was also a connector, a tool that gave him permission to remain a step back but with the potential to forge a point
of entry. There is a palpable vulnerability and urge to connect that make Brodie’s images striking — tender and human.
The tiny baby boot cradled by the large ones, the slender neck pock-marked with finger-tip bruises, the corner of parted
lips just visible in the upper right. There are a number of beautiful pairings of people and animals — the young woman
with the parakeet, the man with the white beard and the pigeon, the toothy girl and the rabbit. The color pallet is cool with
a slight greenish hue provided by those strange yet distinctive Polaroid colors, accented by the occasional texture of
unpredictable emulsion. The printing is gorgeous.
Tones of Dirt and Bone reproduces just the images themselves, cropping out the characteristic white Polaroid boarders.
Given that the photographs traveled with Brodie as he made his way across the United States, part of me wonders what
the actual prints look like, but reproducing them as full objects would be an entirely different book, one perhaps informed
by art book presentations of vernacular photography. There’s clearly a market instinct to distance Brodie’s work from this
kind of thing, but removing the borders also allows the photographs to be reproduced at a larger scale. Despite being
presented in this fine volume, the images still feel slightly worn, still like Polaroids — which may be annoying to some, but
to me is a good thing. Too much cleaning and you lose something. It’s a fine balance.
I can understand why some may prefer this book to the last, but for me, Tones of Dirt and Bone doesn’t catch me in the
same way. I expect that part of the reason can be traced to the differences between the mediums used to shoot. In my
limited experience, shooting with Polaroid requires a special deliberateness on the part of both photographer and sitter,
which carries through to the images of Tones of Dirt and Bone. It is a slower pace. If the rolling rhythm of the train can be
felt in the images in A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, that stillness — the deep breath inwards as the shutter button is
pressed – can be felt in Tones of Dirt and Bone. There are virtues to both, and I expect few will have difficulty picking a
Riding the rails: Mike Brodie’s romantic Polaroids of
By Sean O’Hagan | March 26, 2015
A girl covered in grazes, battered baby boots, and a handmade wooden cross with
the word ‘SON’ written on it … the Polaroid Kid’s haunting images of freight
hoppers walk the line between pure tenderness and true grit
Mike Brodie came to public attention in 2004 after he started posting pictures online under the
alias the Polaroid Kid. Back then, his story seemed too good to be true: a drifter with a Polaroid
camera who captured the itinerant lives of the photogenic young people he met as he rode
freight trains across the US.
Those early shots of kids who looked like hipster hobos were unashamedly romantic, and made
all the more so by their soft Polaroid colours. Initially, Brodie shot on a Polaroid SX-70, given to
him by a friend (the first picture he took was of his BMX bike). When the company stopped
producing film, he switched to a Nikon F3, all the while creating homemade photobooks.
“Brodie leapt into the life of picture-making as if he was the first to do it,” wrote the
photographer Danny Lyon. “He was doing what he loved, and he did it compulsively.” Brodie’s
Nikon pictures were published in his book A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, by the art-publishing
house Twin Palms.
It all began in 2003 when, on a whim, Brodie dropped out of high school in Florida and rode a
freight train to see how far it would take him. Only three days later, he was back home, but the
lure of the hobo lifestyle kept calling. He rode the rails illegally, off and on, for the next five
years. “A lot of the kids I knew have since gone back to their old lives,” he told me in 2013. “It
was something they did, for whatever reason, before they settled down. Some were running
away, some were out for adventure. It’s like being homeless by choice.”
Brodie acknowledges the issue of whether this kind of subject matter should be repackaged in
expensive artbook form or hung on gallery walls. “You have two worlds colliding right there,” he
said. Most of his subjects, he had said, were happy the photos were finding an audience.
Two worlds also collide in his new book, Tones of Dirt and Bone, featuring photographs – many
of which are Polaroids – taken between 2004 and 2006. They seem more considered, more
artfully poetic even, than those in his previous collection. Brodie has an unerring eye for
haunting landscapes and even more haunting – sometimes haunted – faces. A girl in a fur
hat stares sideways at his camera, her grazed face and chapped lips suggesting a hard life lived at
considerable cost. On the opposite page, though, a boy with long hair in a peaked cap and hippy
threads could easily come from the cover of an album by Devendra Banhart. Brodie’s Polaroid
romanticism is his great strength, but you wonder if it sometimes conceals more than it
illuminates about the hard lives of his subjects. His photos walk the line between pure
tenderness and true grit, and one cannot help sensing that there is a degree of mythologising at
But there is much to admire. Self-taught and naturally talented, Brodie often homes in on telling
details: an adolescent neck dappled with love bites; a child’s small battered boot tucked between
the even more battered boots of a parent; alone wooden cross, strewn with flowers and soft toys,
with the word “SON” handwritten on it. These are the fragments he has gathered in his itinerant
existence, each one a signifier of a community beyond the realms of traditional society.
There is a melancholy undertow to his best pictures – a sense of loss, and a sense of lives
surrendered to drift, survival and danger. The objects and landscapes he photographed all carry
a similar sense of mystery: a bunch of leafy flowers, or a dead bird held in an outstretched hand;
a railway track or a wintery road disappearing into the horizon. Everything is bathed in the soft,
nostalgic tones that made Polaroid film such an evocative medium.
These days, Mike Brodie has settled down. He lives with his wife, Celeste, in California, where he
works as a mechanic. In Tones of Dirt and Bone, he wrote: “The photos? I want people to see
them just as I want to tell someone a good story … And when I’m dead, maybe my lungs will still
be around, with some words beneath: ‘Everything comes as a surprise – thank God.’”
Have Camera, Will Travel
An interview with Mike Brodie, the Polaroid Kid
By William Inman
Mike Brodie left home at 18 for a new life on America’s grid of railways and began to photograph the people he
encounters on the tracks and in the squats – those who, for whatever their reasons, embrace the travel culture.
Now 21, he arms himself with little more than his Nikon F3 camera and spends his time traveling the United States telling
his own story and those of the ruddy faces he encounters aboard freight, in abandoned warehouses, in homemade
shacks and the landscapes in between.
His photographs have been exhibited in galleries in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and his current exhibition, Homesteadaz, is
on display at Get This Gallery in Atlanta. His work was also selected to appear in the2006 edition of the Paris International
Photo Fair at the Louvre.
Known as the Polaroid Kid for his work with time-zero film, which Polaroid discontinued early last year, Brodie tells us he
now shoots strictly with 35mm and his work is evolving to include more candid photography. He also discusses his
motivation, his traveling lifestyle and talks about his father, who is serving nine years in an Arizona penitentiary.
Dry Ink: So, you’re the Polaroid Kid, do you still use Polaroid?
Mike Brodie: Nope, they discontinued the SX-70 film, the time-zero film…the film I used. It’s what I think is the best film
ever. So I was like, shit, I’ve got to learn how to use a 35 mm. So yea, I don’t use Polaroid.
DI: Well, what kind of camera are you shooting with these days?
MB: Nikon F3, from 1980, it works good though. It’s kind of a classic.
DI: When did you start traveling, taking pictures and finally getting attention from art galleries?
MB: It’s really all thanks to the internet. If I didn’t have a Web site and the ability to send people my photos; it, of course,
would be a longer process and I probably wouldn’t be (showing in galleries). But, as far as simply taking photos, I got into
it about four years ago when I found a crappy Polaroid (camera) in the back of my friend’s car, and she said I could have it
so I went and bought a pack of film and shot a picture of the handlebars of my BMX bike – I used to ride BMX for six years
– and it came out with the craziest colors. I was hooked… I started shooting Polaroid. Simultaneously, I met Savannah,
my girlfriend, and we both had freight trains rolling by our house. And she’s the wild punk girl I was fascinated with and we
wanted to hop trains, but she was still in school, so I said ‘Fuck this, man, I want to ride trains!’ So I quit my job and waited
around for a while and she still wasn’t ready so I hopped a train to Jacksonville from Pensacola. I didn’t know what I was
doing, and ever since then it’s been a learning process, learning how to ride trains correctly, and what I photographed has
evolved. And then having a Web site that anyone in the world can look at, and all types of people contact me so…
DI: Do people that you travel with resent you for taking their photo? Or what’s their response?
MB: Everyone I photograph, I’m on good terms with. Sometimes, when they see the photo, they’ll put their two cents in,
but, I don’t know, I think a lot of people – I’ve had a couple shows recently – and it’s like… there’s a bunch of dirty kids in a
gallery and (art patrons) think it’s fucked up. I don’t know what they’re talking about, and I don’t want to have a
conversation with those people. But, everyone I photograph… they’re down with it. They know what I do with the photo. I
mean, some of them I’ll never see again, but most of them I keep in touch with.
DI: You seem like you’ve done a good job reconciling the art and the traveling culture, is that difficult? I mean, not
necessarily keeping your travelin’ ‘cred, but… you’ve had a show in Beverly Hills?
MB: Um, I don’t know, it’s funny, I hopped trains to the show in Beverly
Hills. Me and four of my friends rode down to L.A. from Oakland, and we all got real wasted at the opening. People think
train riding is some sort of sacred culture, and it definitely has deep roots in history, but it's 2007 and people nowadays
who ride trains do it for fun. Some want to act like their like, down and out, like impoverished young kids being exploited or
something and that’s silly. I ride trains for fun. I just like photographing these people because they interest me and they’re
beautiful and they’re important to me. And I want to keep the document open on traveling because I need something to
keep me going. I mean, if I wasn’t taking photos, I wouldn’t be traveling. Sometimes I take a train the wrong way
or…whatever happens a photo will come out of it, so it doesn’t really matter where I end up.
DI: So is there like a network of traveling kids? Do they all know each other?
MB: Half the people in my photographs know each other, and they all are in a similar age range and they’re all traveling
and hanging out in the same areas, most of them, same groups. So if they don’t already know one another, they will down
the road. Or they’re MySpace friends. All those traveling kids all are on MySpace, all have cell phones and all keep in
touch with one another (laughs).
DI: Ha! That’s hilarious, an interesting juxtaposition.
MB: Yea, that’s why it needs to be made fun of and not taken seriously. I don’t mean to make people look so down and
out in my photographs, but I think that comes with portrait photos, you know, I’ll say ‘Look right here!’ And they don’t
smile. So I think that gives an undertone of sadness.
DI: So how many shows have you had?
MB: This is my third. Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
DI: Why do you call this one Homesteadaz?
MB: I named this one after some kids who used to squat this abandoned apartment complex in Philly. A couple of ‘em are
in these photos.
DI: Home base is Pensacola?
MB: Yea, it’s been my home base for about six years.
DI: So do you just pick up and go whenever?
MB: Yea, pretty much. I usually have a solid plan of where I want to go, but different things – different adventures - will
sprout from it. And whatever pictures come along during the way…
DI: So are you going to continue doing portraits?
MB: No, I don’t like doing portraits actually. I’m evolving more into shooting candidly. I really like just shooting stuff, being
there, like when no one’s really paying attention. (Portraits) can make good photos, but I like the weird stuff that happens
when no one seems to be looking.
DI: So what’s next?
MB: Well, I hope I stick to it for a while, I don’t know how long, my project is really just scratching the surface. I have a lot
more photos to take and I’m going to keep riding trains. I know I’m going to keep shooting till 2012; my dad gets out of jail
around 2011. And he’s going to ride a train with me, but he’ll probably have to sit around in Arizona on parole or
something. So hopefully I’ll stay motivated to shoot photos until then and wrap up the project when we go for a ride.
DI: So, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s he in jail for?
MB: Being stupid (laughs). Stealing stuff, he’s been in jail his whole life. He went to this construction site, this subdivision,
he stole like $25,000 worth of marble tile. This guy actually hired him to do it, and he got caught and got nine years.
DI: Do you talk to him?
MB: No not really, I have a hard time… I’ve visited him the last two years in a row and I’m visiting him again this year, but I
have a hard time writing him. I just would rather see him in person. I could write him and tell him everything that going on
with my life, but I just send him a few notes here and there and tell him I’m looking forward to seeing him, and (when I see
him) I’ll run my mouth for a few hours, whatever.
518 West 19th Street
Through March 19
In this exhibition of astounding, insistent photographs, the hurly-burly of everyday life often
seems inches away from the lens. Organized by Lea Freid, a partner in Lombard-Freid Projects,
and the photographer Nick Haymes (whose work is included), it features images by 13
photographers born over a period of nearly 50 years who work in the United States, Europe or
Japan. Most operate in the gap between traditional street photography and postmodern set-up
photography. Their subjects are drawn from real life, and most are captured on the fly, yet with
a degree of intimacy — and occasionally staging — that creates its own intense artifice.
The éminences grises here are Walter Pfeiffer of Switzerland, Carl Johan De Geer of Sweden and
especially Keizo Kitajima of Japan, all of whom are represented by black-and-white photographs
from the 1970s that document various bohemian or clubgoing subcultures. In his photographs
of Bangkok the young Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol visibly carries forth Mr. Kitajima’s
ink contrasts and gritty textures. Janine Gordon’s rough-and-tumble images of the bicycle
jousting contests known as bike kills extend the subculture tradition, as do Mike Brodie’s oddly
wistful atmospheric Polaroids, dated 2005, of youths who, like him, continue the American
tradition of riding the rails.
This memorable show’s most valuable lesson is, surprisingly, a formal one: If looked at hard and
honestly enough, life can sustain a tremendous range of visual styles as well as emotional
SEPTEMBER 6, 2011
There was an amazing photo essay floating around several years ago, depicting the
life of modern day vagabonds. The visceral and sometimes graphic images
documented the lives of a group of young people who had, whether by choice or by
circumstance, abandoned “traditional life” in favor of a more transient existence.
Recently, Nikki sent me a link to a group of photographs with the note: “you have to
see these.” As it turns out, the photos she sent, were taken by Mike Brodie, otherwise
known as The Polaroid Kidd, who spent three years of his life riding the rails with a
Polaroid SX-70. It was the same set of photographs I had seen years earlier. His
photographs depict what he calls “travel culture”, shooting those who live on the
fringes of society; train-hoppers, vagabonds, squatters and hobos. By allowing himself
to become a part of the culture, Brodie was able to capture photographs that do
more than just document, they also serve as a narrative of his own life, showing
intimate details of a life most of us will never even get close to, let alone lead.
‘Obsessed’ with train riding
Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Operation Lifesaver.
Ten years ago, as a teenager in Pensacola, Florida, Mike Brodie met
a bearded, dirty and tough-looking man who was sleeping on a
friend’s front porch. During their conversation, the man pointed out a
“hot shot,” or high-priority train passing by. Within a week, the
adventure-seeking Brodie was planning to hop aboard for a free ride.
As he stood waiting for a westbound train headed for Mobile,
Alabama, where a friend lived, he grew bored and instead took an
eastbound train to Jacksonville, Florida. For days, Brodie hitchhiked
and hopped other trains to make his way home again.
His trip marked the beginning of at least a decade of train hopping.
“I got obsessed with riding trains,” Brodie said. But since no one
could keep up with the pace at which he wanted to travel, he mostly
rode alone, making friends along the way.
As his knowledge of trains, schedules and routes deepened, his
“traveling loner moments” continued. In the 10 years since he’s been
riding, Brodie traveled more than 50,000 miles across 45 states.
At first, he documented his rides with a Polaroid camera that his
friend gave him. But when the company discontinued its film, he
switched to 35mm.
He sees his photography as a hobby that “developed into something
His photographs earned him the Baum Award in 2008 and have been
exhibited in several places, including the Louvre in Paris. He has
recently compiled some of them into a book, “A Period of Juvenile
Prosperity,” which will be released November 15.
His photographs reveal a subculture of American youth who have the
freedom to leave home and travel, including hitchhiking and train
“Everyone does it for different reasons,” Brodie said. Sometimes it
turns into homelessness for travelers, but some people need to
experience a different life to become well-rounded, he added.
For Brodie, train hopping is exhilarating and scary, but satisfying.
It can be a deadly hobby, however, according to Operation Lifesaver,
a non-profit that provides education hoping to prevent collisions,
injuries and death on an around railroad tracks that contacted CNN
after this article was published.
"Hundreds of people die each year when they needlessly engage in
extremely dangerous behavior, such as trespassing on rail tracks or
illegally jumping on moving trains," Operation Lifesaver President
Helen Sramek said, suggesting that people heed warning signals to
stay off tracks and away from the trains.
While Brodie feels that he learned more about life through his
experiences than he would earning his degree right after high
school, he’s learning to grow up now, he said. He graduated from
mechanic school and is laying roots in Oakland, California. He
doesn’t travel as often, but when he does, there is always a loosely
constructed plan and the thrill of adventure.
“Photography is an afterthought of the moment,” he said. “The rest is
experiences and memories.”
When I first saw Mike Brodie’s images from the book A Period of Juvenile Prosperity I was
startled by how powerful, blunt and frank they are.
"A Period of Juvenile Prosperity" is the result of a journey covering a span of 4 years
and a distance of 80.000 km jumping on trains across the US with a group of "outsider"
friends, all rigorously and obsessively recorded.
I think about what Edward Steichen said before passing away: "The mission of photography
is to explain man to man and each to himself. And that is the most complicated thing on
earth". Precisely so. Brodie’s insight takes us into his day-to-day eliminating, by way
of his straightforwardness, the distance between ourselves and his world propelling us
with vigour into the universe of a sub-culture typified by piercing, tattoos, period
blood stains on panties and greasy hair but also idealism, freedom and boldness. While
observing the images, a mental connection is triggered which links the undertone of some
photography from the 70’s to the modernity of the subjects portrayed; Mike Brodie’s works
are post Beat Generation, they cite a little Ryan McGinley as well as – clearly - Jack
Kerouac and I believe that, if A Period of Juvenile Prosperity were a movie, it would
be Stand by me meets Into the wild.
I asked a few questions to Mike whose works will be on display at Yossi Milo gallery in
New York until April 6th.
Why did you decide to photograph your trips with your friends so extensively?
"I don't know, I just get these ideas in my head and I have to do them to the point it
almost kills me, then I move on to the next thing, currently, I'm looking for a little
more consistency in life."
What is a consistent life for you?
"Living in the same place, seeing the same people, and doing the same job, day in, day
out, for at least 5 years."
Are you going to continue photographing?
"Yes I would love to continue photographing. I have $500 in Kodak film rotting in my
fridge. I want to photograph machines."
What is the main reason behind this trips? Were you in search for something?
"I just loved riding trains. I had a map that I used to record every single ride, I love
rail maps and studying the rail system, it was just a dorky hobby but everyone thought I
was so "COOL". I think I was just searching for a good time? Maybe a girl? A place to
Do you admire any photographer in particular?
"Not really, but naturally I'm sure I drew tons of inspiration from other artists, I mean
if I never looked at a photo how would I know what a "good photo" was? I think I obsessed
over the composition of Mary Ellen Marks photos the most."
When does a picture become art to you?
"It looks pretty artistic in a nice frame in an art gallery with 200 people staring at!
Haha, but really I think it's art when I shine the sunlight through the negative to check
out some photos I just developed, I think it feels like art right then."
What goes through your mind when you are framing a shot?
"Nothing really, once I start thinking then I talk myself out of it."
What do you look for in an image?
"Could never figure that out really, something inside would just say, get a photo of
this! So I would just go for it. I was always searching for really bright areas within
darkness, like the cover photo of my book, we were in the shade but the sun was bouncing
all around because the walls were aluminum."
What do you think of single iconic pictures vs a series?
"I like the single iconic picture, in a good photo, you can find a lot of photos within
it, so you can look at it for longer, a lot of elements between the foreground and
Which camera do you use?
"A Nikon F3."
Do you edit alone? Can you talk me through your editing process?
"Yes initially I edit alone then I get input from friends, and sometimes outsiders who
don't know anyone in the photos and aren't too familiar with the lifestyle. The editing
process involves digitally scanning EVERY image than going back and picking out the good
ones, then looking at them a year or so later, this is the most satisfying part of
photography for me."
In your pictures I see American movies like Stand By Me and I feel like reading Jack
Kerouac, do you think is the case?
"Definitely, what a compliment, that's classic Americana right there! I would be honored
to join the ranks."
Do you recognize yourself in the American travel photography genre?
"No, but I will accept that, I'm an American, I love traveling and taking photos of it so
it seems appropriate."
Why did you decide to share your travel picture online? What kind of reaction were you
hoping to trigger in the viewers?
"Well I knew how to make a website so I thought, what the hell, I should post these
photos. It became my creative outlet, it was great to get a little attention and some
positive feedback from people all over the world. I had no intention I just want to share
my art, putting them online was a way for me to look at them too. There was one point
where I had a website but nobody could look at it except me, I just needed a way to
organize my photos and thoughts."
You were discovered online. What do you think is the impact of social media on
"I suppose it's had a very terrible impact on it as an art form, but there's no denying,
things like Instagram are awesome and make people happy so who cares!"
di Alessia Glaviano
Published: 03/27/2013 - 07:00
“Behind every discarded objects, there’s a story,” says Mike Brodie. Days before the new year, the photo
wunderkind, who gave up his camera after releasing the immensely popular A Period of Juvenile Prosperity in
2012 to become a mechanic, spoke excitedly about picking up an engine, imagining the life it had before
landing in his hands: the roads it drove down on, the people it carried.
Similarly, the Polaroids that make up his new opus Tones of Dirt and Bone tell the tale of a free spirit’s thirst
for adventure and serendipitous encounters. Back when they were taken, between 2004 and 2006, Mike Brodie
was known as the “Polaroid Kidd”, a young man hopping trains and immortalizing those he met along the way
in the distinctive style afforded by his SX-70.
“The engineers that created that camera, and the film that went with it, put some indescribable magic into it,”
says Brodie. “The final product, is unlike any other.”
He was seduced by the soft hues, the wild edges and the haphazardness of the process. “I was really sad when it
was discontinued. It was such fun. It made me want to make pictures. It lasted a year. And then that was it.”
During that time, he traveled from Pensacola, Florida to Olympia, Washington, a serpentine journey that lasted
around five months, three of which he spent in Oakland. En route, he met Benny, Nadia, Brontez; ran into
Monica, Ben, Yoni; crossed paths with Hannah, Corey, Chris. Kindred spirits who, as Brodie sets his lens on
them, gaze up at him, inquisitive and brazen. Free birds forever caught on film.
“I would stay with each person for a while and really focus, making sure that I got the picture that I wanted
without wasting too much film. I’d usually take two or three photos,” says Brodie. He would then either give
these ephemera to the sitter or add them to the stack bound by elastic that weighed his pockets down before
moving on, to the next town, the next state, the next chance meeting.
However frenetic Brodie’s life on the road was, there’s a quietness to the photos he shares in Tones of Dirt and
Bone. These serve as a preface to the 35mm captures, taken after the SX-70 film was discontinued, that make
up A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. The Polaroids are the calm before the storm, moments of tense stillness
before running to catch a freight convoy charging ahead. “Unlike many of the pictures taken during ‘heated’
moments aboard the trains – images, that when I look back, I say, ‘I can’t believe that happen’ –, I took the
Polaroids when I was ‘safe’, when I could take my time,” says Brodie.
Doing so allowed the self-taught photographer to familiarize himself with his camera and develop an
understanding of composition – also gleaned from looking at the works of the likes of Mary Ellen Mark and
Steve McCurry. Such artistry came in handy when life unfolded at full speed in front of his lens. “Developing
the skills associated with a craft should be a priority. Today, there’s an epidemic of putting being an artist
before honing the craft. You should spend a lot more time putting your skills together before saying you’re this
or that,” says the 28-year-old who, despite sweeping acclaim from the milieu, never claimed the “artist” title.
After ten years as a vagrant, Brodie no longer has the same drive to capture images. “I tried to photograph
what’s going in my life nowadays but can’t. I can either be a photographer or be a mechanic. I can’t stop doing
what I’m doing to do something else. It’s calling on different parts of my brain. It’s all or nothing.”
Admittedly, working on Tones of Dirt and Bone while running his shop turned out to be a challenge. “But I
needed closure with these images,” he says.
Not all photos in the book are memorable. Some are haunting. Others seem spoilt. But, as a whole, they provide
a glimpse into the consciousness of an indomitable soul. “I don’t know why I’m doing the things I do, but I am.
And this is who I am and what I’m doing, so why think about it too much.”
Tones of Dirt and Bone by Mike Brodie is available now from Twin Palms Publishers, with a limited
edition released by TBW Books.
When he was 17, Mike Brodie decided to illegally train hop his way to visit a friend in Alabama, but three
days travelling in the wrong direction to Florida was the best mistake he ever made. He spent the next five
years train-hopping, hitch-hiking and walking across the US, wandering it's plains by whatever means were
free and documenting it all first on a Polaroid SX-70, earning him the internet tag, "Polaroid Kid," and then
a 1980s, 35mm camera. Those romantic, bohemian images of the young outsiders he met on the road
were collated into his first monograph, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, published by Twin Palms in 2012.
Now he's releasing a new book, Tones of Dirt and Bone. A unique look at the early photographic
foundations which led to A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, Tones of Dirt and Bone chronicles Brodie's journey
around America between 2004-2006 using the Time Zero film discontinued by Polaroid six years ago. We
catch up with Mike to talk about being on the road and if he found what he was looking for…
Tones of Dirt and Bone is the foundation of your work in A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, how does it feel
looking back at your early Polaroids?
Looking back at those Polaroids feels really good, it was so much fun taking those photos. It saddens me
that the film was discontinued, I only had the opportunity to use it for the better part of two years! I always
imagine what would have happened if I could have kept going with that series of photos, then again, my
transition to 35mm gave me so many more possibilities with photo taking.
What made you want to publish your early work now?
It's just how the cards fell, and I think at the time, around 2006-7 I wasn't ready to go too mainstream with
a published book, I was still going, searching for the train riding moments. Also, TBW Books soon after did a
limited edition book of those images so I was content with that for a while and began to focus mostly on
What's the story behind the cover image?
Not much to tell, I was riding in a trailing locomotive cab just north of Pueblo, Colorado, on my way to
Denver. I took a Polaroid through the engineer's door. October 5th.
This book is such a great look into your early experience traveling around America and the people you
met, do you think you found what you were searching for?
Thank you! Good question, I did find it, now I am "on to the next thing." Everyday I look forward to the
adventures life will bring me next.
What were some of the most memorable places you travelled across?
New Orleans to El Paso, TX. Summer 2005.
You have mentioned before you have mixed feelings about showing your work and having your work in
books, do you still feel that way?
I do not, however I try to steer clear of some of the media outlets that just want to commodify this lifestyle.
"The American Nomad" is an overly romanticised idea that is far-flung and short lived.
During your experience taking these photographs, by having the camera and trying to capture the
moment, did you ever feel like merely an observer?
Yes, I always 100% felt like an observer, it was unfortunate, but how I felt. Now, by putting down the
camera, I can be a 100% participant and really truly enjoy life.
Your work very much empathises with the people you were photographing, did you romanticise them
I think I did, because at the time the lifestyle for me was very romantic. However, looking back I realise just
how much time we all spent sitting around, doing nothing and wondering, what the hell are we going to
do with the rest of our lives?
Do you still know any of the kids you photographed in A Period of Juvenile Prosperity or Tones of Dirt and
I'm out of touch with most of them, not all. I keep tabs on some folks but for the most part I don't know
what anyone else is doing, probably the same as me, trying to get their life together.
Have you managed to settle down yet?
Do you think you'll pick up a camera again soon?