Mike Brodie, Polaroid Kid

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Stanley/Barker (here). Foil stamped cardboard portfolio box with rubber band, 13 x 17 cm, with 50 loose leaf facsimile prints in varying sizes. There are no essays or texts included. Design by AS & EH. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Artists tend to be free spirited. Sometimes they are difficult to corral into the buttoned-down club of patrician collectors and gallerists. Iconoclastic photographers like Dash Snow, Larry Clark, and Zoe Strauss come to mind. But Exhibit A might be Mike Brodie. The art world has tried to slot his tattooed square peg into one round hole after another, with varying degrees of success. In the immediate wake of his third publication Polaroid Kid, the relationship remains tenuous. 

Brodie grew up in Arizona, far from the museum circuit. His father was a prisoner, his mother a maid. After moving to Florida as a teen, one day Brodie hopped an accidental train to Jacksonville. That led to several years riding rails around the country. He became enmeshed in the tight train riding community, a grimy crew of young vagabonds who embodied a happy-go-lucky punk ethos. 

As Brodie recalls his first brush with photography around this time, “a friend gave me a Polaroid camera I found on the back seat of her car. I took a photo of the handlebars of my BMX bike and it looked incredible, so I kept taking pictures.” Those handlebars set the hook. His rail riding cohort proved to be a photogenic treasure trove. Hopping trains over 50,000+ miles on various cross country adventures, he shot more than 7,000 Polaroids of friends, byways, towns, freight cars, and the blurred crossroads connecting them. The one-touch simplicity of the Polaroid camera was a perfect vehicle for his subject matter and visual aesthetic. It was pure and immediate. Prints could be enjoyed, marked, and distributed on the spot. Eventually Brodie added a Nikon F3 and motion picture camera to his arsenal, but Polaroids were the central thread of his early years. He shared them regularly online. By the late 2000s he’d gained wide recognition and a nickname: The Polaroid Kidd (occasionally spelled Kid with one d).

As Jack Woody sifted through Brodie’s archive to create his debut monograph, there must have been some temptation to focus on these early Polaroids. Instead he wound up curating Brodie’s later 35 mm color work, a shrewd decision as it turned out. The 2012 Twin Palms monograph A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity was a breakout sensation, announcing Brodie to the fine art world with an intuitive eye for for color, serendipity, and joie de vivre. The book’s sequencing and production were perfect. Perhaps most importantly, at least from the art world’s genteel perspective, APOJP offered a first row seat to a seldom seen underground society. Sleeping in flat beds, crapping in filthy squats, washing crusty jeans in the tub, leaping between speeding freight cars. Did contemporary adolescents really do these things? Yes indeed. Not only that, they were central to Brodie’s identity. “The struggles and hardships of Brodie’s uprooted existence are clearly real,” we wrote in our 2013 exhibition review (here), “but he has found a way to capture its subtle pleasures and learnings with equal success. Even at their most subdued and personal, these photographs crackle with life.”

Brodie’s early Polaroids finally had a turn in the spotlight with his sophomore effort Tones of Dirt and Bone, published by Twin Palms in 2015. This book turned back the clock to his early period from 2004 to 2006. Some pictures documented his notorious rail riding adventures. Most of the images settled into calmer corners to share quiet portraits, domestic scenes, and vernacular snapshots. The gentler tone foreshadowed Polaroid Kid, but that was still several years off.

The adjustment to his newfound celebrity proved tricky for Brodie. He once arrived at his own art opening fresh off the rails, grimy and fragrant. Pleas to shower and clean up were refused. Within a few years of his arrival on the scene, he’d had enough. He quit photography to become a diesel mechanic in Oakland. He eventually started a trucking business, married, divorced, and resettled. Despite his best efforts to move on from his art career, the photo bug wouldn’t release him. In the succeeding years he has made several forays back into and out of his photo practice, while making several more long train journeys. He has activated and deactivated various Instagram accounts, and taken stabs at selling prints on his own. Photography has proven to be a combustible life partner. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.  

Perhaps a return to roots will change the dynamic. Polaroid Kid Brodie’s early development in both form and subject matter. A small cardboard box houses fifty facsimile prints from 2003 – 2004. They are reproductions, but their realism is uncanny. The prints are the same size, shape, and thickness as original Polaroids in various formats, printed front and back with white borders, manufacturing stamp, and black reverse panel. Some have been in Brodie’s possession for decades, acquiring nicks, scuffs, stains, notes, and tears along the way. These post-exposure artifacts are faithfully copied with the actual pictures. Stacked in a loose leaf pile, the prints can be shuffled, arranged, or stuffed under a table leg just like any real Polaroid. If the simulacrum is impressive, Stanley/Barker has had some practice. They pioneered similar facsimiles three years ago in the Jim Goldberg box Fingerprint (reviewed here). 

Content wise, Polaroid Kid covers broadly similar territory to Tones of Dirt and Bone—a few photos overlap both productions—but this new format seems to suit Brodie’s work better. The illusion of grease and fingerprints lends a simulated authenticity which transports the viewer back to the mid-oughts. There we find glimpses of the hardcore hobo lifestyle to come, but it had not yet coalesced into a full-time pursuit. Instead we peer over Brodie’s shoulder as he photographs a delicate skinned knee, dripping blood toward the filthy white border below. Photographs of signs, graffiti, and advertising trumpet catchphrases from the past. “The Polaroid Kid” is inked on a dumpster (and on the cover of the box). Another message reads “You Are Beautiful”, encountered once, then twice, then three and four times. Someone—perhaps a friend or flatcar mate?— has scrawled it repeatedly on passing bridges and billboards. A photo of a mother with child is sweetly nostalgic, as is a photo of young Brodie himself, sitting on a train with thick framed glasses before acquiring his many trademark tattoos. In other photos naked teens hang from the rafters, hitchhike by the roadside, or mug with pets. Even the old bike handlebars make an appearance, reprising Brodie’s very first Polaroid. 

If the idea is to capture the unscripted opportunism of youth, Polaroid Kid has done its job. The subject matter may be underground, but the mood is buoyant. These are teens reveling in the moment, before the weight of adulthood announces itself. Judging by his pictures, Brodie’s plastic camera wasn’t just an art-making tool. It was a fun group activity among friends. You could pump out silly prints, then toss them in the air like confetti. And hey, while at it, why not take another Polaroid of the prank? The spirit of blissful innocence contrasts sharply with A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity. That book documented the period just a few years later, but prospects had noticeably dimmed. Brodie’s rag tag crew napped in squalor, poked a finger near spinning train wheels, hustled illicit alcohol, or were picked up by the county sheriff. Carefree hedonism had gone slightly off the tracks it seems. If Polaroid Kid recalls Ryan McGinley’s wind-in-the-hair cavorting, APOJP was closer to the dirty squats of Arnis Balcus or Jessica Dimmock. 

The differences between Brodie’s three productions are a case study in curation. To date, Brodie has focused primarily on making pictures. He’s farmed out most editing and production choices to others, first Paul Schiek, then Jack Woody, and now Greg Barker. Each has harnessed Brodie’s free spirit in their own way, and we see Brodie’s photos through their eyes as much as through his. As might be expected, the results are a mixed bag. This new box set is entertaining, but it lacks the menacing edge which so energized A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity. The pictures are charming, nostalgic even. But it’s hard to imagine them setting the photo world on fire like Brodie’s debut. That said, they do a good job filling in his backstory and capturing meaningful figures in his past. Perhaps Polaroid Kid will help to draw him back into the photo fold for good. In the meantime, another Brodie book with Twin Palms is in the works.

Collector’s POV: Mike Brodie is represented by M+B in Los Angeles (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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