Danny Lyon on Mike Brodie, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity

Danny Lyon reviews Mike Brodie’s photobook A Period of Juvenile Prosperity.

Great photography touches the soul. In 2003, Mike Brodie was a teenager in Pensacola, Florida, living with his mother; his father was far off in Arizona, doing ten years in prison.

Young Mike and his friend Savannah figured out the simple scam of stealing books from Barnes and Noble and reselling them on Amazon. One day Savannah stole some photography books. The Bikeriders, which was reissued that year by Chronicle Books, was kept by Brodie. They gave away one by Mary Ellen Mark; Savannah wanted to keep the book by Sebastião Salgado; and the dog ate the book by Steve McCurry.

That same year Brodie received a Polaroid SX-70 from a friend and made a picture of his BMX. Like so many, Brodie was blown away by the picture that magically appeared. Deciding high school had no more to offer, he told his mother he was leaving home for a life of rail-hopping. There, he took on the tag The Polaroid Kidd. When it was no longer possible to get film for the SX-70, he bought a Nikon F3 for $290 and started to make pictures on negative film. (I once explained to Mike that an F3 was a single-lens reflex and he did not know what that term meant. He did know the term “range finder,” and understood that with the SLR he could perfectly compose his pictures.)

This year, ten years after Brodie hit the rails, Twin Palms, Jack Woody’s small publishing house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, published Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, a collection of sixty-one prints made with the Nikon. The cover, which Jack designed using a detail of one of the train photographs, looks like a cross between Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. We see two street children upside down and asleep, as if rotating in a heavenly constellation of filth. The image of the sleeping children, one a boy, one a boy/ girl, is held in place by the five steel rivets of a railcar as it rockets across America. Brodie, Nikon in hand, loaded with Kodak Portra color negative film, made the picture by leaning over the edge of the steel car. During four years of shooting with his Nikon, Brodie produced two hundred rolls of film, which were developed at Wal-Mart and Walgreens, “wherever they had twenty-four-hour service.” He carried the negs with him until he had a bundle of rolls, then returned to his mother’s apartment in Pensacola, where he scanned each negative into his computer using a Nikon scanner he purchased on eBay. When I asked him if he ever printed any, he said that he eventually stole a HP printer that could do 13 x 19 in. prints. The negs were terribly scratched, which is fitting for a record of children that proudly wear their wounds and tattoos on their sleeves for all to see, a finger in the eye of all us Americans happily comatose in our materialism. Brodie thinks his train-hopping family were scions of the anarcho/crust punk movement that began in the mid-1980s.

Brodie leapt into the life of picture- making as if he was the first to do it. He was doing what he loved, and he did it compulsively. The book, which he sequenced with Jack Woody in Santa Fe, is the story of rail-hoppers, who after many miles (Brodie has been to forty-eight states by train) settle down in the domestic bliss of a squat. This book is as powerful a record of America in need of a bath and our lust for the road as has ever been done.

When the camera and subject are moving at the same speed, the result is called a pan. In motion pictures it is called a tracking shot. Many of Brodie’s pictures are made in motion. Brodie’s use of color is always subdued. He almost never shoots in sunlight. The endpapers of this wonderful book are a double-page spread from the rear of a train as it speeds around a corner.

In the first picture we see one of Brodie’s train-jumping heroes as he stares down at a train from an overpass. Over his shoulder is slung a sack of veggies, freshly picked from a dumpster. The boy is covered with grime. A late-model black sedan is behind him on the overpass, its fog lights on, because, as if the scene wasn’t gloomy enough, everything is enveloped in fog. Only this car looks like it is about to flip over, because young Brodie has turned his Nikon on a forty-five-degree angle, dividing this two-part vision of travel with a line that crosses the picture diagonally. The picture is perfect. The kid is a natural.

We follow the images in a sort of “how-to” train-jumping sequence. (Don’t try this; you might get killed.) In another pan, a boy/girl clutching a guitar case runs along the blurred gravel roadbed. Far behind, another figure runs along the tracks. Are they getting on or off? And where is Mike? It’s even harder to work a camera than to hold on to a guitar, so let’s assume he is perched on the train. The blurs are thrilling. The only thing approaching focus is somewhere down those tracks, perfectly parallel, stretching to infinity.

There are no captions on these pictures. We never learn anyone’s name, and worse, we do not know if they are in Idaho or Canada, or where they are. There is a beautifully written afterword that Brodie wrote in Santa Fe. In it he briefly lays out his difficult life growing up, the outline of how he made the work, and his early retirement from photography to become a diesel mechanic. He says he is looking for a job, just not in photography.

And he just might have retired the pan on his way out. Shot straight down (again) from what must be the roof of a speeding train, we see the cars coupling, the parallel tracks beneath. This picture is a sort of Lewis Hine for the LGBT crowd. Hanging like a monkey from the car is one of Mike’s little savages—what is he wearing?—a black lace nightgown trailing in the wind. The ground streaks by, giving this solid picture an immense sense of speed and flight, coupled, so to speak, with the bravery and fragility of human existence.

We are left with some mysteries. One young man appears in many pictures wearing a shirt with vertical black stripes. This is his family, Brodie’s family, and a very small group of people. They end up off the rails, in a sort of domesticity of filth. There is a revolting shot of a rat, and, in a picture of someone’s blue jeans soaking in a bathtub, we see that cleanliness, though not next to godliness, is something like sex: most of us seek it, it’s just a matter of how often. The group seems less exciting once they have settled down. Maybe I miss the rails. There is one showstopper, though, as a young woman shaves part of her hair with an electric trimmer, and we see her in the mirror. What, in another group, might have been mascara running from her eye, are long dark tattoos. The phony menu hanging in the squat offers things like “Toast a poot” and “Shit Toes.”

Ah, youth. Thank God America is always able to produce a generation that can offer our self-satisfied selves “Shit Toes” for lunch.

*This title also appears as part of the short list for the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards.

Danny Lyon’s writing appears regularly on his blog at dektol.wordpress.com. His newest book, The Seventh Dog, will be published by Phaidon in 2014. Aperture will reissue The Bikeriders in spring 2014.