A photographer is compelled to relish the surface. An artist is obliged to transcend it. The recent exhibition “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity” by Mike Brodie, a 28-year-old self-taught American artist, presented 31 diaristic color photographs, made between 2006 and 2009, of contemporary train hoppers. The images seem to pick up the cause of American reportage photography by such practitioners as William Eggleston, Walker
Evans and Pirkle Jones, as well as the photo-essay storytelling of Life magazine.
The first room of the gallery held seven medium-scale works, many of which explore the visual logic of train hopping. #5060 shows two train hoppers riding “suicide”—balanced on an open-floor freight car—through vast yellow fields against a tilted horizon line. It has been said by many, including author William T. Vollmann, that the view from inside a moving box-car is like that on a movie screen, presenting scene after scene of landscape dramas. Those who have experienced this—Brodie became a train hopper as a teenager and subsequently photographed his journeys and travel mates—are rewarded with a unique way of seeing the world.
The legacy of train hoppers ties to a larger history. Train hopping was a common means of travel for North American migrant workers after the Civil War, their labor replacing that of slaves. These workers doubled in number during the Great Depression, and nearly disappeared in the latter half of the 20th century.
The second room in the gallery provided a more intimate portrait of modern train hoppers, via 24 smaller images displayed in a horizontal formation mimicking the boxcars of a train. In #1064, a scampish young woman lifts her skirt to reveal white underwear stained with blood. The image recalls Courbet’s 1866 L’Origine du monde, setting in motion a comparison—both artists seem trapped between realism and romanticism, between this world and what lies beyond. Several images hark back to religious iconography, including #3733, which captures a nude, peachy-skinned toddler suckling her mother’s breast. #5485 depicts a prone young man whose face is awash in pain and shock. A woman leans over him, touching his forehead. In Brodie’s book of 60 works from this series, we learn the man has broken his neck, as the image is shown near one of the same person in the hospital.
Like fashion images, Brodie’s pictures at times describe a careless wish: that we can surpass our present circumstance by donning outfits and staging, or reenacting, idealized moments. These photographs don’t need an Instagram filter for retro allure, mostly because the subjects have already dressed the part, as bundle-toting, suspender-wearing hobos. They are not riding toward their next job; they are simply riding. What prevents the kudzu creep of nostalgia from invading and destroying these images is not the subject matter but Brodie’s use of 35mm color film. The photographs are not burdened with the legacy of black-and-white. Nor are they haunted with the nowness of HD digital. One photograph, #3102, perfectly observes a delicate balance between contemporaneity and timelessness. A man in a flowing lace robe defecates off the side of a train. It is as though Brodie cast his line toward something earthbound and dirty, and caught something transcendental instead.
PHOTO: Mike Brodie: #5060, 2006-09, from the series “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” C-print, 17 by 24 inches; at Yossi Milo.