Words by Tim Boreham
Photography is so saturated with iphone posts and canon DSLR’s that I sometimes find the art getting lost and blurred in a world where I am not sure if I love it or hate it. I am finding it harder to be impressed and form an opinion, I scare myself with how cynical I can become. Sometimes however, when I am at my lowest, my most cynical, most annoyingly negative, I come across something special that reminds me why photography is such a beautiful medium that can choose to get to the point but is just as powerful when it does not. This is when I found photographer Mike Brodie.
I have always been drawn to freight trains and used to visit some of the freight train yards on the east coast of Australia being amazed by these diesel beasts that slept overnight in the yards before taking off across the country on adventures I was always jealous of. We would trek into the yards at sunrise via stormwater drains that led you out of suburbia sneaking past the shipping yards with barking Rottweilers and lazy security far more concerned about shutting the dogs up than investigating the shadows the dogs were so keen on. After walking for kilometres in that grey light before sunrise the drains eventually morphed into unkempt bushland, which then turned into this strange no-mans land. This huge empty rugged space with long grass and service roads zigzagging through it was always eerie and exciting. In the distance were poor excuses for a fence, and beyond that lay the sleeping giants. Freight trains lined up mostly empty of cargo waiting for an engine to link up and pull them out. While they waited they formed four or five rows of kilometre long snakes that sat on the unused lines weaving up around a bend often out of sight. We would spend the morning in the yard taking photos and exploring as if we were in a life size Thomas the tank engine set climbing between the graffiti covered coal carriages until the sun got high enough to be a threat. We would then sneak out through no mans land where the bush would morph into stormwater drains and arrive back in suburbia, watching as people walked their dogs and kids rode their bikes far more interested in their routine than us, climbing out of the drains covered in dirt clearly not a part of the Sunday morning running club.
In my early twenties I would read books that told romanticised stories of people who actually rode these trains from town to town, hopping off to work on farms earning a few dollars then jumping back on the cross country conveyor belt to whatever destinations lay ahead. I visited the yards a few more times but never could imagine stowing away in the dirty freight carriages trapped until the train decided to slow down enough for you to jump. I began to learn that what I labelled as trapped many in the past saw as the ultimate freedom. Riding these trains went beyond a mode of transport, it was a rebellious way of living, a necessity for some, a mindless escape for others, but there were hundreds of thousands in America especially, that chose or fell into this hard but rewarding lifestyle.
It was sometime in the late 19th century that Americans started hopping the freight trains as a way of looking for work in different towns across America, it was around this time after the civil war that terms like hobo and tramp were being thrown around to describe this generation of train hoppers. In the late 1930s during the depression freight train hopping became increasingly popular as what was mostly men at the time, attempted to find prosper in other towns, if it didn’t work out they could simply hop back on the freights and try again. As the trend grew through the 1930’s and 1940s an amazing set of rules and graffiti sign language became part of the growing culture of travelling tramps. Characters like T-Bone Slim, Jack Black, Roadhog, Smokin’ Joe, Mongoose Maddie, Matokie Slaughter, Bozo Texino and North Bank Fred emerged along with the constant villain in the scene known as ‘old bull’ (train security). Riding freight trains became a rich tradition full of its own rules and etiquette, tree markings on the edge of towns signalling friendly towns and job opportunities.
As the original hobos and tramps grew older and could no longer hop the trains they disappeared into American folklore and with them I thought the adventures had all but stopped. I knew there were a handful of stories that people were still hopping the odd train but as far as my youthful adventurer self was concerned that was a tale that had been told. Years later after my obsession with freight trains and hobos had somewhat slinked to the back of my mind I stumbled across an amazing photograph of two youths riding in a brand new steel open top freight train carriage. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the photo was so stunning it could have been a professionally lit catalogue shot for some ultra cool brand, but it wasn’t. It was photo documentation of a real moment that had taken place in a country landscape somewhere. The carriage was too new and modern to be a distant memory. It had to be within the last twenty years. This is when I discovered Mike Brodie a photographer who blurs the often-pretentious line between fine art photography and photojournalism. These are photos seen through an amazing eye capturing a time that is clearly far from gone bringing back to life all the stories told by famous poets and novelists in stunning yet often confronting images.
Brodie at the age of 17 hopped a train close to his home in Pensacola, Florida with a destination in mind, however he ended up in Jacksonville, Florida. After a few days Brodie hopped a train home and unknowingly sparked what would be a ten-year relationship with freight trains. Brodie found a Polaroid camera on the back sear of a friends car and starting taking pictures of his travels, whether it be hitchhiking, walking or riding freights. When Polaroid film became too expensive he switched to a $150 Nikon 35mm film camera and continued taking thousands of photos over a ten-year period travelling tens thousands of miles capturing a part of American life, which is evidently still there. Brodie’s work captures a youthful abandonment that is rarely as confronting and beautiful as the stories he is telling. The ability to get close and tell this amazing story shows access to a world many are unaware of; his photos are candid and very personal. It’s almost as if he has handed over his life in photographs, complete with ex-girlfriends, adventure, danger, blood, desperation, joy and sadness.
Word got out about Mike Brodie’s work, “I got internet famous. I deleted my website and stopped taking photos and went back to school and became a diesel mechanic. I quit being a diesel mechanic, but I learned how locomotives work. I started taking photos again.” And it’s this kind of humble response to photography that only adds to Brodie’s honest and human approach evident in his work. Mike Brodie has documented a movement and way of life that he has found himself deeply entwined in, the culture he was documenting has now become his own story.
All images from the series A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity 2006-2009 © Mike Brodie, Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery / Yossi Milo Gallery