Los Angeles Times, reFramed: In conversation with Mike Brodie

Born 1985 in Arizona, Mike Brodie began photographing in 2004 when he was given a Polaroid camera. Working under the moniker, The Polaroid Kidd, Brodie spent the next four years circumambulating the U.S., amassing an archive that would go on to become one of the few true collections of American travel photography. Having never undergone any formal training, he chose to remain untethered to the pressures and expectations of the art market.


Brodie compulsively documented his explorations, then, as suddenly as he began making photographs, he left the medium behind.


In 2008, Brodie received the Baum Award for American Emerging Artists. A new book, “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity” was recently published by Twin Palms. Limited edition, signed books are available from TBW Books.


His images are currently on display at M+B Gallery in Los Angeles through May 11, 2013, and are being shown simultaneously in New York at Yossi Milo Gallery.  Alexandra Wetzel of M+B Gallery said,  “Brodie crisscrossed the states hopping trains, hitchhiking and employing whatever freely available means to fuel his burning lust for movement.  The resulting photographs weave a telling photo narrative relatable to Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ capturing the raw spirit of adventure and unbridled freedom Brodie and his friends sought and lived.”


Brodie recently graduated from the Nashville Auto Diesel College and is now working as a mobile diesel mechanic out of his silver ’93 Dodge Ram.  Although he has stopped making photographs, the body of work he made in four short, intense years has left an enduring impact on the photo world.


Q: How did you get the nickname The Polaroid Kidd?
A: Ten years ago in the train yard in Pensacola, Fla., I saw The Kodak Kidd’s moniker, so I copied him. Unfortunately, due to the recent notoriety of my photographs, some see The Kodak Kidd and think he is paying tribute to me. But that is false, I was paying to tribute to him. Although I shot 7,000 photos on Kodak film, and all my prints are on Kodak paper, I am not The Kodak Kidd. He started long before me, and his name has graced the sides of boxcars in just about every state for many years … rail cars from coast to coast, been doing it since 1995. I got my start shooting Polaroids, which is why I chose that name, at the time.


Q: You stopped making photographs to become a diesel mechanic. I love that. Why did you stop making images to become a mechanic?
A: Being an artist for the rest of my life is not realistic. This was all kind of an accident, it’s not like I went to art school or was formally trained. I have more interest in the working class, being working class. I’m interested in machines and different types of equipment that are powered by the diesel engine, like locomotives and earth movers; this stuff is interesting! So, I want to make a career out of that. It is just more realistic, and if someone thinks that is boring, well, I don’t care.

Q: Your new work, “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” feels like a visual journal of your life during that time. What inspired you to hop trains and then document the sub-culture of American youth? How much of the country did you see, and how long was your journey?
A: Yes, it is exactly that, a visual journey. I think the major inspiration I had were from the folks I was hangin’ out with in Pensacola. The punk scene, like radical anarchists and all these feminist girls, at the time, their ideas and way of life were really interesting and inspiring to me and really gave me the push to think for myself and, well, hit the road. I saw 46 states via freight train; the journey was 10 years, the book was culled from four years’ worth of photographs.


Q: The images you made are really lovely and intimate.  Did the people you met on your journey become like family to you? It feels like a pretty tight tribe. .… Can you tell me how you all bonded during what had to have been a really intense time in your lives?
A: Yeah, everyone was and still is like family. It’s a community, pretty tight, we all keep up with what’s going on in one another’s lives and help each other out. It’s the punk community, you know, like hippies kinda. Times were intense, but not that intense; nobody was actually homeless. In my opinion, we all chose this alternative lifestyle , and in that lifestyle, “beggars can’t be choosers.” We took what we could get to make it through one more day or to get to the next town. You develop close bonds on the road because that’s all you got; you have to look out for one other. Nowadays, most of the individuals pictured in the book are no longer hopping trains or living that lifestyle as hard. Two people got married, and a few others are gainfully employed, in college or pursuing other more “productive” avenues in life. I agree with the phrase that “people don’t change,” but I think people’s goals in life change all the time.


Q: Do you miss the high adventure of riding trains and the freedom the lifestyle provided you?
A: Hell yeah, it was awesome. The sound of a high-priority Z train whizzing by you at 70 mph in the middle of a cornfield in Nebraska, zooom zooom, zoooom …


Q: What are you doing now? Taking pictures or working on engines or both?
A: I work for myself doing auto repair jobs for Bay Area residents, I sometimes get good cellphone shots of my dog. My mom says I should enter them in a photo contest! hahahaha


Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Yeah, I’m looking for a job. So if you’re a reputable diesel engine builder or work in the human resources department for a Class 1 railroad, I need a job as a diesel mechanic or an engine assembler. This would be long term, and hopefully a union gig with benefits. Contact my manager via http://www.mikebrodie.net to get in touch. Thanks.

April 8, 2013