Off the Rail
Boxcar-jumper and self-taught photographer Mike Brodie stays on that crazy train.
Words by Jesse Erenberg All images from the series Tones of Dirt and Bone 2004–2006 © Mike Brodie, courtesy of the artist, Yossi Milo Gallery / M+B Gallery
Sun-drenched metal train beds, ragged smudge-marked wanderers, and epic American landscapes collide in a fleeting slice of unseen life. These images merge in the lens of photographer Mike Brodie. Brodie hopped his first train at the age of 18, equipped with little more than socks, a sleeping bag, some cardboard, and a water jug…plus his camera (a Polaroid SX-70, for the record). From that day forward, Brodie obsessively shot thousands of photographs of fellow hoppers, decaying American infrastructure, and life on the road.
A self-taught photographer, Brodie first shared his pics online, then landed several gallery shows, and later was featured in TBW Books limited photobook subscription series. In spite of the art and publishing world attention, he continued rolling on the wheels of freight trains crisscrossing valleys and plains, dusty forgotten towns, and the big cities of America; riding and shooting until 2008, when he abandoned life on the road, quit photography, and enrolled in school to become a diesel mechanic.
In 2014, Twin Palms published his massively popular A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. Now, Brodie is back with another collection, Tones of Dirt and Bones, chronicling his earliest travels (all captured on Polaroid). The book will be supported by shows at M + B Gallery in L.A. and Yossi Milo Gallery in New York. Brodie connected with us to share some train-life flavor, discuss his disinterest in the art world, and let us in on how trains are still influencing his destiny.
Mass Appeal: Can you tell us about your first ride?
Mike Brodie: My first ride was so fun, but scary. Me and my girlfriend at the time were going to catch a train to Mobile, Alabama, but she worked full time and wanted to wait a couple more weeks so we could leave town when she had time off, but I couldn’t wait. It wasn’t really a selfish thing, or maybe it was—I just had to get the hell out of town…on a train. So one morning I did. She went off to work and I went off to sitting under this freeway overpass where the train would come around this bend pretty slowly, this was in Pensacola, Florida. I had a backpack, a couple old bagels, and my polaroid. The westbound train to Mobile was taking too long, so I just caught the first train to come by, it was an Eastbound heading to Jacksonville, Florida. I had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t care.
I wound up in Jacksonville the following morning around 3:00 a.m. at the big CSX intermodal facility off Pritchard Rd. I felt like I had landed on Mars; a lot of strange machinery moving 48’ and 53’ shipping containers— beep beep beep, boom, weird noises—and you couldn’t really see workers because the equipment and containers dwarfed them in size. My train had terminated and was being unloaded, I had to get the hell out of there. I made the mistake of wearing shorts, walking through 2-foot-high weeds in the summer—not a good idea, mosquitoes.
I walked about one mile south through this facility, until I saw a juice train getting made up. You see, when you don’t know what you’re doing, bad things happen. The train was leaving the yard, so I thought, and I ran after it, all I could focus on was catching a good ride and not where I was running. I tripped over a switch, fell flat on my face and skinned up my elbows and knees. I hopped back up and got on the train. The train went about 20 yards and stopped. This is train riding! The train finally left, but it went the wrong way, it was heading back to Bradenton, Florida, the home of Tropicana Juice. After rolling 100 miles the wrong way, I jumped off the train—literally, like you see in those old hobo cartoons where the guy tucks and rolls. I did that, I skinned up my elbows and knees, more. I walked in a nearby Walgreens to look at a road map, I was in Hawthorne, Florida. An old lady grabbed my arm and asked if I was okay, I forgot how I looked, dirty and bloody and too young to be fucking up my life. I decided I would hitchhike north to Baldwin where I could catch a westbound back to Pensacola. My ride hitchhiking was cool, an old man who rode trains back in the steam days. I got to Baldwin and caught a boxcar back home. My girlfriend was pissed but happy to see me.
What’s the story with the Polaroid camera? Heard you found it in an abandoned car.
I have heard and read thousands of different versions of how I got my first camera.
What sort of reactions did you get from other hoppers when they saw you with your camera?
Everyone secretly likes attention; it’s just sometimes hard to figure how to deal with it once you got it.
What compelled you to continue to shoot more and more?
I think I saw something there, something deep and meaningful that was worth risking my life to document. I knew the way of life wasn’t going to last, for me or any of those I knew. So in my mind, I kept thinking, one day these trains will stop, or one day these people will stop riding them, they will grow up and move on. So I just kept digging deeper and taking the photos until I was satisfied with what I had. But it gets complicated, because it became my life. I became obsessed with riding trains. I wanted to do it forever. I rode trains more than anyone I knew, except Train Doc.
What about injuries on the rails?
In my circle, there were no deaths from train riding. A buddy lost his legs in Portland, and I almost lost my leg below the knee in a hump yard in Kansas City. A lot of close calls, but the gods were with us… Most of us.
How much of an issue are the police?
Mostly very helpful, you would be surprised. I always tried to respect authority so I could get out of town hassle free, some police have even given me rides across town or showed me better places to wait for a train.
What did you do for food?
Imagine the food you would bring before a camping trip, that’s what we did. I was dumpstering one time at a strip mall in Washington and I ate a bunch of spaghetti that was full of used napkins that I thought was cheese. Yummy. Oh, and once me and an ex-girlfriend got off a train at sunset in Yuma, AZ. It was 109 degrees. We walked into a corner store and the clerk gave us free giant horchatas. It’s a Mexican drink—cinnamon-flavored rice milk.
Were there critical things you learned from more experienced riders?
I learned in what ways I do not want to fuck up my life.
When you were riding, what was your favorite way to pass the time?
Sleep, eat, or jerk off. Some people would roll cigarettes.
Is there a sense of community amongst riders?
There are common outlooks shared, usually rooted in anarchy, despising social norms, hoping for a better world, etc. All politics aside, some of us just liked the adventure.
When you weren’t riding what did you get into?
I stole stuff a lot. Being a thief is a bad habit I got from my dad, and I’m finally breaking it. I did a couple medical studies too, but other than that, I was lazy and didn’t want to work. I wanted to ride trains and take photos, that took enough work. I didn’t need much. I had no phone or bills or rent or responsibility. I didn’t need money, I ate out of the garbage. It was fun—for a little while!
Where’d you get the name “The Polaroid Kidd”?
I gave that name to myself, I always saw “The Kodak Kidd” and thought that was cool. So I did “The Polaroid Kidd.” although I guess I became “The Kodak Kidd II” because I ended up shooting Kodak film.
You ever still see any of your tags running?
[I was taking it] kinda serious. It was just something to do to kill time. You do see some tags around still. Like, a year ago, my wife got hired by the BNSF Railway. I dropped her off for her first day of work and we park right in front of a tanker that said “The Polaroid Kidd.” It was awesome, everything felt right in the world at that moment.
Did you ride with any graff artists?
I spent some time on a train with Deuce 7, a very interesting character and very talented artist. There is quite a bit of crossover with the graff guys and the train riders, but I didn’t get into that too much.
Why’d you stop riding?
It got boring sitting on my ass all day watching the world go by. It was an escape, and that is all it is for everyone.
What made you stop shooting photos?
I felt like I got the photos I wanted, so I decided to move on. I still have a camera but I don’t really use it.
What got you to start posting your photos online?
I became familiar with the Web after making a website to showcase BMX photos from my town. Then I realized it would be a great avenue to show my Polaroid work to the world. I got great feedback, and it’s how I got connected with the M+B Gallery.
Do you still ride BMX?
I have a BMX bike sitting in front of me that I built last year. It’s had a flat tire for two months, so no. Not really.
How did you feel about your first gallery opening?
I liked the attention. And I was able to make a little money here and there to keep on rollin’.
Did you ever feel any resistance from the established art world given that you are not a trained photographer?
No resistance, just a lot of annoying conversations. People talking about equipment or other photo-related topics that I never really developed an interest in.
What’s the difference between the 1st book and the 2nd?
35mm to Polaroids.
Did the different cameras impact your style and photos?
Yes, the slow nature of the SX-70 Polaroid camera taught me to use natural light and compose proper photos. That skill carried on to the Nikon F3 thatI used.
Do you still have your Nikon F3 and the drive to photograph?
I do not have the original camera. It was stolen from my truck at the Wal- Mart parking lot last year. I’m occasionally inspired. I like machinery. I like anything that contrasts man-made with the natural world, like that weird oil sheen you see in parking lots sometimes when it rains.
Do you have many unreleased shots ? Any undeveloped rolls? Plans for any more photo books?
Plenty of unreleased shots. No undeveloped rolls. There might be some more books.
How did you get interested in being a diesel mechanic? What do you specialize in?
I just dug so deep into my interest with railroads that I eventually picked up a wrench. I was hooked. I specialize in the machining and repair of largebore diesel engines.
Was that challenging to learn?
In 2009 I enrolled in the Nashville Auto Diesel College. It’s a 2-year fulltime program. I graduated and moved to California and worked for three different companies until deciding to start my own business.
Are you working on exclusively train engines?
I currently work on CAT and Cummins diesel engines, which have a lot of applications. My long term goals are to establish contracts with Class 1 railroads and mining sites to perform machine work needed on their equipment, and to provide them with rebuilt engines or parts.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, I already got married, so the rest is history. Thinking about moving to Lodi, California.
What do you like about Lodi, CA?
Great town to start a family and develop my diesel business. A lot of trains too, right there between Stockton and Sacramento; 15-20 trains a day it seems like. I love it.