Making It Count: An Interview with Mike Brodie




6 minutes reading

In 2013, Mike Brodie (1985, USA) enraptured the photographic world with the publication of his first book, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, a richly rustic documentation of his free and filthy train-hopping journeys across America. Before the images of Juvenile Prosperity, however, Brodie honed his photo expression with a Polaroid camera that he received in 2004, taking on the moniker The Polaroid Kidd. These early images that he shot on the road, from 2004 – 2006, are now being published as his second monograph, Tones of Dirt and Bone. We had the chance to ask Brodie about restless living, seeing the U.S. landscape by train and settling down.

Your first book, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, was shot while train hopping. Is that also the case with this earlier Polaroid work, or did you use other modes of transport, as well?

Train hopping was my primary means of transport as I made my way across the country. There were also buses, and hitchhiking, but the majority of the Polaroids stemmed from spending time in one community and meeting people that way, the train riding was where I spent most of my loner moments, photographing nothing at all.

That’s interesting – your photos make train riding seem like such a communal experience. Is that because you mostly only photographed when people were around, rather than during your loner moments?

Yes, I mostly took photos when people were around because that was the subject I was attracted to. I saw a lot of beautiful countryside but I didn’t take many photos of that. It was a communal experience at times but most people I knew were not as aggressive with my eagerness to ride the rails. So I would get restless and leave town!

How long did you usually share company with the people you met on the road before going your independent ways?

Three days max and I was gone, after that I would get restless and would have to move on. I remember spending three months in Oakland, California because I like the way of life so much. As far as shared company, it’s a toss-up, we all literally weaved in and out of each other’s lives – no real direction or wherewithal – it made life surprising!

Were you constantly on the road during this time?

Constantly on the road. All I wanted to do was move, if I wasn’t moving I wasn’t doing and I would get sad and lose direction, always moving.

Three days max and I was gone, after that I would get restless and would have to move on

You switched from Polaroid to 35mm around 2006, when the Time-Zero film you used was discontinued. Not to get occupied with gear, but how did it change the way you worked, to go from instant photography to using film that had to be developed?

The format changed my approach a great deal. Polaroid format required complete stillness, absolutely no movement to render a decent image. It could get frustrating at times and I would sweat, literally. The 35mm format let me shoot more candidly and truly capture real moments, not staged portraits. And it was a tougher camera, the Nikon F3, I could throw it around and it would be fine!

How do people on the road react to you carrying a camera and taking pictures?

The only real adverse reactions I’ve got were from cops in small towns, getting calls about a “homeless man photographing a water tower” like it was some sort of terrorist plot. And from my ex-girlfriend who was very unsupportive and hated the camera.

I think a lot of other people hated it but maintained their composure out of respect for what I was doing, they saw a passion and a real drive to make something happen with these images, so I am thankful for that.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to publish the work and get it seen, then?

No, I was completely against it at first. For a while I told myself I would never publish a book, which is ridiculous. I suppose I was just trying to be cool. It must’ve had an impact on the photo taking, because I had no goal. I wasn’t trying to make a book and tell a story, I was just getting images.

I love stories of men and women who came from nothing and accomplished great things

At the time your first book came out, you said you’d travelled more than 50,000 miles train hopping across the U.S. Do you feel like you’ve seen it all, or are there still some places or things out there that you look forward to seeing someday?

Of course I have not seen it all, I have seen practically nothing. As far as places, I stay pretty close quarters these days, and look forward to small trips. I can honestly say I do not look forward to leaving the country at all, I truly love America.

What is it that you love?

Besides the beautiful landscape, I love stories of men and women who came from nothing and accomplished great things, overcoming great hardship, challenges, and failure... they would dust themselves off and try again!

When A Period of Juvenile Prosperity came out in 2013, you made clear that you’d given up photography. Is that still the case, that you are not photographing?

I do not take photographs, I have begun a new adventure. I started building my very own machine shop to accommodate the remanufacturing of diesel engines.

Was the decision to stop photographing a part of also deciding to try to settle down? Do those things link up in your viewpoint, photography and wandering?

Yes they must be. I always got this special photo feeling when I would go on a trip. I think it’s the movement.

How are things now that you’re not on the road – do you feel like you lost direction as you said earlier on, now that you aren’t moving?

No, because different things excite me now. Using tools, solving complex mechanical problems, and developing a skilled trade that will carry me and hopefully my family through the rest of our lives. Train riding does not offer that, it is merely an escape from those things.

Now that the adventure of wandering and photographing is over in your life – at least for now – when you look back, what do you think was the most rewarding part of it?

After a long ride, getting off a train safely and arriving in a new town.

Are there some things in life that you find yourself grateful for their stability or relative permanence?

Life itself! To wake up every day alive and breathing, what a treat most of us have been blessed with. Make life count.

What does it mean to you, to make life count?

The same thing it means to you.

Making It Count was featured in GUP#44, the Raw issue. See more images from A Period of Juvenile Prosperity in our online portfolio, or read our photobook review. Tones of Dirt and Bone is available in a trade edition from Twin Palms Publishers, and as a limited edition through TBW Books.