Artist in Training

A Period of Juvenile Prosperity BY Mike Brodie. edited by Jack Woody. Twin Palms Publishers. Hardcover, 104 pages. $65.

The cover of A Period of Juvenile Prosperity

In Just Kids Patti Smith explains how, in the late 1960s, she and Robert Mapplethorpe met in New York, where they were both determined to become artists (were pretty convinced, actually, that they already were artists) even though they hadn’t a clue about what kind of art they might create. Mike Brodie is a guy who, having taken pictures of the kids he was hanging out with, ended up becoming . . . a diesel mechanic! But the pictures made him “Internet famous,” and a wonderful selection of them has now been published. Dreams can come true, it seems, even a dream you never dreamt of dreaming. We are talking, in this instance, of a specifically American dream: a coherent body of work, fresh as a new pot of paint, which is also part of several traditions that dig deep into the country’s sense of its possibilities.

What happened, briefly, is as follows. In Florida in 2002, when he was seventeen, Brodie hopped a train to go visit some friends. The train was going in the wrong direction, and so, like Sal Paradise making his first stab at hitching west in On the Road, Brodie ended up coming right back home. But this abortive excursion encouraged him to set out again and begin his real life on the rails. Over the next five years and fifty thousand miles, he took a ton of pictures of the people he met and the life he was living. At first he used a Polaroid that, depending on the account you read, was either found behind the seat of a car or given by a friend. When that camera’s film was discontinued, “the Polaroid Kidd”—as he’d become known on websites where he posted his pictures—switched to a 35-mm Nikon, the camera he used to take the photographs featured in A Period of Juvenile Prosperity.

The pictures have the day-to-day intimacy and immediacy of a journal, but the journey they describe—the shared root helps—has a clear narrative, even if the route is irrelevant.

We start with a kid on a road-bridge contemplating the rails below. In the 1960s you were urged to come to San Francisco with a flower in your hair; this guy, more pragmatically, has a rucksack stuffed with life-sustaining vegetables. The rails lead both to future adventures and back into a mythopoeic past. Next, somebody is clambering over a fence into the rail yard; then people are scrambling onto the trains, one with a guitar in his hand, a po-mo hobo ready to do his version of “Hard Travelin’.”

As with Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency—and if ever a book of photographs deserved to be termed a ballad it’s this one—Brodie’s pictures are entirely from within the world depicted. Goldin always had a knack, according to Luc Sante, for finding beautiful colors and light in what was otherwise a complete dump. The light for Brodie and his fellow travelers is a given, filling their lives with lyric and radiant purpose. The land that blossomed once for Dutch sailors’ eyes whizzes and blurs past as they ride the rails; the light fades, and the dark fields of the Republic roll on under the night. But the book is less a record of sights and places seen than one of the people doing the seeing. Photographs by Helen Levitt don’t just show children playing in the street; they convey what it’s like to be a child. Same here. We share the optimism, recklessness, and manifest romance of these outlaws’ take on destiny.

The lyricism, crucially, is underwritten by squalor. The sense of a promise constantly deferred and refreshed is kept in check—but never broken—by dirt. Without the dirt this could look like a rebel fashion shoot of the kind that got Corinne Day and Kate Moss started. The shirts and cowboy boots are cool, but the clothes are not just ripped and the dirt is not just dirt—it’s grime, filth. We’re all up for getting dusty at Burning Man for a week, making do with Porta-Potties and hand sanitizer, but the hands here are dirtier than any photographed by Dorothea Lange in the 1930s.

The places where these travelers end up crashing make Nan’s dumps look like palaces from a Goldin age of bohemia lost. They also lack the impoverished homeliness of the squats photographed by British artist Tom Hunter. Highlighting the underground romance of that scene, Hunter duplicates poses and situations from famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings. One of Brodie’s pictures—of a kid in a sleeping bag in a field by the railroad tracks—looks like the kind of thing Hunter might have done if he’d been photographing in the American West rather than East London, but any echoes of prior artworks seem uncontrived. Take, for example, the young woman sprawled on the floor with her legs open, one hand hiking up her skirt—a pose and gesture much favored by Egon Schiele—to reveal knickers smudged with the dull blood of her period. Her other hand is holding up the book she’s reading, a rat-nibbled Flannery O’Connor omnibus that includes, presumably and punningly, Wise Blood. Other images are similarly and slyly self-captioning. Shot from above, a woman sits on the toilet, bent double, next to a poster advertising what I assume is a band called, in that endearing teenage way, the Assholes. As the country slips gorgeously by, somebody chalks the word “SWELL” on the side of the container she’s traveling in.

At times the Brodie bunch look like survivors in a postapocalyptic world in which the trains continue to run mysteriously on time. Or like a ragtag army of noncombatants on a mission behind enemy lines—a mission that demands they live off the land while carrying out acts of nonspecific sabotage. The danger of getting busted—legally and physically—is ever present, and there are, inevitably, casualties. Many of them are bandaged up with recently self-inflicted wounds (aka tattoos), cuts, and bruises. Things are no longer swell but badly swollen, likely to become infected. Ashen-faced, blond, beautiful as Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton, an injured boy is comforted by a woman. She’s not his mom, but the picture has the tender purity of a pietà. On the facing page he’s lying on a gurney in a neck brace, rigged up to tubes and drips. Here and there, among these crusties with dirty faces, are older hobos, down-and-outs for whom this is not just a phase but a permanent condition of impoverished existence. Maybe some of the kids will end up that way, but after a while many, like Brodie, will opt out of opting out and get their lives back on—i.e., off—the rails. Perhaps that’s why one of the photos seems to offer a kind of diagram of choice. It’s a subdued picture of rail tracks and road, forming a V, photographed by Brodie as he stopped by woods on a snowy evening (or morning or afternoon). Looked at in career terms, Brodie’s friends have chosen a road or track less traveled, but similar journeys are a mainstay of American cultural history generally and of photography in particular.

Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Joel Sternfeld, and Stephen Shore all went on photographic trips across the United States. They traveled by car with the express purpose of taking photographs. Brodie’s photographs were done incidentally, with no artistic aim in view, just as the journeys were made for their own sake, rather than with the idea of making it to California, say, or the Museum of Modern Art. Formally, the pictures’ aesthetic is pretty much in sync with this, as if they just happened to have turned out as they have: often cropped, free-floating, and on the wonk. (So what if the sole of a boot looms up in the viewer’s face?) Maybe the experience of riding the rails created a rhythm of seeing that took the place of years of sedentary visual training. If the hurtling convergences and diverging geometries—of track and limb—seem accidental, that is a sign of precariously appropriate mastery.

In another representation of youthful adventure, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, one of the kids wonders why, in Wagon Train, they’re always wagon-training, without ever getting anywhere. Here too the friends are in perpetual transit, on trains or in cars; in photographs, in the moment. And yet . . . Evans once said that anyone “who travels by rail over the lesser lines of the U.S.A. clangs and shunts straight into his own childhood.” There is none of that old-fashioned nostalgia about these images. No, they’re more like a full-blown elegy—the penultimate picture shows a rearview mirror; the last, someone looking back with magic-hour longing—for the phase of life that they record, that Brodie was leading: a life of constant leaving that has since been left behind.

Geoff Dyer’s books include Zona (Pantheon, 2012) and Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (Graywolf Press, 2011), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.