If you can imagine a lovechild of Walker Evans and Larry Clark, that’s Mike Brodie. Leaving home in 2002, at 17, Brodie became infatuated with train hopping and rode freight trains on and off for seven years. Along the way, he picked up his first camera, a Polaroid, in 2004 and began photographing his travels and his friends, switching to 35mm in 2006.
His images from this period show dirty young men and women (androgynous clothing and hair often make it difficult to tell which — all genders given represent my best guess) traversing the US by train and car, usually either collapsed in exhausted heaps or engaged in dangerous-looking acrobatics at high speeds. A number of these are on view in his current show at Yossi Milo Gallery. Titled A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, the exhibition is a strange but compelling mix of nostalgic Americana and youthful dissipation.
This may not seem like all that unusual of a combination, but simply the latest in a long line of debauched road trip stories that stretches from Kerouac’s On the Road to Crowe’s Almost Famous. Whereas those works glamorize their subjects’ daily existence, however, Brodie’s photographs brutally juxtapose the American ideal of the open road with the squalor of an unsettled life. The starkness of that difference is often an effective way to sympathetically portray these kids without sensationalizing their lives, but it also prevents the show from really holding together.
The best of Brodie’s photographs focus on the joy and freedom of the nomadic lifestyle, even as small details betray the unpleasant realities that come with it. The show’s most immediately striking picture shows a young woman from behind as she watches green fields fly by from the top of a train. The sun is setting, and her hair blows out behind her. Her curls are matted, and her shirt is faded. There is no one else in the frame, all the way to the horizon. She is perfectly free, and perfectly alone.
That picture’s sense of endless space and application of natural light represent two of Brodie’s greatest strengths as a photographer. He brilliantly captures the joy of movement — the feeling of getting lost in the vastness of America. In one photo, a young man hangs off the back of a train car, flipping off the camera while the ground blurs beneath him. Another shows a pickup truck’s dashboard covered in feathers and plastic cups as the road stretches out in front. Only the rearview mirror is in focus, holding four faces obscured by the bright orange light of a sunset.
Brodie’s other major skill is his ability to manipulate angles: bodies sprawl in strange directions, the camera peers up from an impossibly low place, lines intersect and diverge in unexpected ways. The images often aim to shock — particularly the one of a sneering young woman with legs splayed, pulling up her skirt to show her blood-stained panties, and the angular disruption makes them a bit more threatening.
Clever framing also allows Brodie to pack an impressive amount of visual information into each image, creating an organized chaos within the frame. In one such unruly photograph, people seem to fall in and out of the picture: a young man sleeps sideways on a heap of coal; another guy sits up behind him, with his head cut out of the picture; in the back corner of both the picture and the train car, someone else is curled in on himself; and in the out-of-focus foreground, one leg and one dirt-blackened hand of yet another person are just visible. Brodie’s subjects are incongruous, out of step with their surroundings — anarchy is both their attitude and their reality.
Unfortunately, when Brodie abandons that sense of freedom and space, his photographs tip towards the generic. For example, in one shot, a girl bends over a sick-looking young man at night. The details are concealed, the edges of the image fade into darkness, and the couple sits right in the middle of the frame. Without alienating techniques or odd details, the photograph loses the strangeness that makes the artist’s other images engaging.
Every depiction of a subculture, whether primarily artistic or anthropological, must find a balance between the specific and the universal. Though Brodie doesn’t always achieve that balance, he excels at illustrating the particularities of his chosen world — the antiauthoritarian attitude, the strange sleeping places, the constant movement — and how those details position his subjects as both outsiders and heirs to a grand tradition of American life. Either they’ll ride off into the sunset or they’ll continue to stick it out, pissed off at our complacency. Most likely both.
Mike Brodie: A Period of Juvenile Prosperity continues at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 6.