Mike Brodie’s Glimpses of the Under-Underclass

Photography can serve many functions. One of the most powerful is open up parts of the world we never see, reminding us that they are as viscerally real as our own lives. Humanity’s a huge thing and there are teeming cultures all around us — universes really — that we rarely glimpse from inside. Day by day, it’s amazing how much of it we file away as alien, content to leave it there.

That’s what struck me when I first saw this image of a slit possum splayed out for dinner in a homeless camp. The photo was unidentified, but the reality was jarring. Turned out it was by Mike Brodie, a.k.a. the Polaroid Kidd (thanks to Jonathan Welch for the ID). Brodie left home at 18 to ride the rails, armed at first with only an old Polaroid SX-70. Over the next three years, he proved an amazing photographer, documenting the travels and lives of his fellow squatters and vagabonds.

Brodie’s work has been justly praised, with exhibitions around the world and ecstatic comparisons to Dorothea Lange. However, he seems to have virtually disappeared during the last year: no new exhibitions, website down, the works.

Erik Lyle, a past squatter and rail-rider himself, writes that Brodie’s work provides glimpses of “a sort-of hobo-topia where packs of grubby kids (and dogs!) play music, share food, and forage in the ruins of post-industrial America together, while traveling together from town to town on freight trains and homemade river rafts.”

Yeah, that’s there. But, I also found his pictures — especially the jarring first image I found — to be an effective antidote to romanticizing the homeless. Yes, there’s vitality, fun and even a sense of grandeur here.

Yet a look at the missing teeth, the Mad Dog and the ever-present grime shows us a different side as well. This is still a group that remains nigh-illegal thanks to many a gentry-friendly law, is extremely vulnerable and are often plagued by mental and physical illness. The knife cuts both ways.

More glimpses below. Have a look.

All images © Matt Brodie.

21 Responses to “Mike Brodie’s Glimpses of the Under-Underclass”

  1. six06 Says:

    thank you for sharing this. :)

  2. rickie Says:

    i love that this guy has been as prolific as he has, so far. i have always wanted to document exactly these type of things, these real life experiences, and these actual places with real people in them. i’m glad someone is (or did)! i also always wanted to be a hobo, at least for a little while.

  3. Jerem Morrow Says:

    I’ve friends, one of which you’ve met, who live this life. This particular person has a shot at financial stability, but chose this instead. Wasn’t backed into it, by any means. The luster seen in these photos makes it clearer to me, what he sees, that I hadn’t gleaned quite yet. There’s something here, that the dirt doesn’t cover. Joyful vibrance. Puckishness. A seeming freedom, maybe. Alluring in the same way a life in the military offers travel experiences. Hollow, but damned attractive.

    Okay, perhaps “hollow” doesn’t apply to the former, but you get me, I’d wager.

  4. Nadya Says:

    These photos are absolutely incredible. Thank you for posting these, David.

    What strikes me about these is how many kids I’ve met who put a lot of money into looking exactly like the people in these photos! It’s funny.

    There are lot of white dogs in these pictures. Interesting.

    Hope he’s OK, wherever he is…

  5. Alice Says:

    Not meaning to ignore or downplay any of the hardships these people struggle with to survive, but….

    Man. Some of those folks have some of the best fashion I’ve seen on ANYone! I notice a LOT of striped stockings and awesome hair dos. Like depressing Fruits photos.

    Drawing from what Nadya mentioned, it’s funny that there are so many wealthier kids running around trying to look much like this. Kind of cheap, too, if that makes any sense. Maybe “shallow” is the word I’m looking for…

  6. Kale Kip Says:

    The pictures are kinda nice. I guess they show these crusties as the romantics they pretend to be in their happier moments.

  7. Fausty Says:

    I lived a year and change of my life in this world – well I did have a crashpad in the basement of an old house, but let’s say my down-and-out world intersected the world of the full-tilt nomads. I also spent many years, on and off, as a part time “dirtbag” rock climber in the 1980s – sleeping in the dirt, dumpster diving for nutrition, budgeting dollars to last for days. A buddy supported himself for years like that, with cashflow from pool hall hustling excursions – he waxed poetic on the nutritional munificence of canned yams. Larry and his canned yams. . .

    No way to say this is an easy life, or a “fair” life, or even a life sustainable forever. Any serious illness or injury is a potential catastrophe, and it’s all but impossible to raise a family of any kind (though some do try – and a few succeed with courage and creativity). Being hungry, REALLY hungry, with no way to get food is way less “romantic” than it seems in a photo. Being cold, sleeping cold and wet, ditto.

    On the flipside there’s a feeling of being genuinely in the flow of the world and not having created a false, planned, boxed-in reality where surprise is unwelcome. I can remember days when there was enough food to eat and someplace warm to stay – with those issues resolved for the day, the rest of it was gravy. Mixed in with all that, occasional moments of transcendent beauty.

    I have a deep respect for those who choose alternative paths. Without them, we lose genuine cultural diversity – their experiments on the fringes of conventionality help keep the rest of us from becoming completely ossified and brittle, forever. It’s a pleasure to see somebody bringing some of that wisdom back to the conventional world via deeply-felt photography like this.

    Fausty | http://www.cultureghost.org

  8. Tequila Says:

    Can’t say I quite see this in the same romantic ways as others here let alone the appeal of those who chose this. I’d heard and read about this before, mainly in documentaries and one case about a potential serial killer who rises the rails. The other was on modern runaways. I see more of a wasted and kind of a confused sadness in the images, beautiful totally, but also it’s easy to see how so many just ignore them. They blend into their surroundings quite well, like a chameleon or very survival focused bug. That’s what impresses me more than the close or romantic facade…that they survive and keep going. Does have that if the world ended tomorrow these would be the ones who survive the longest vibe…a bit of poetic irony there.

    As far as rich kids trying to mimic, well that’s nothing new. Thing is to them it’s a look and a trend so why not play and have fun if you can afford it? Oddly at the end of the day few of them end up with any real choices anyway…kinda fitting really.

  9. Mer Says:

    David, they’re incredible pictures, and I’m so grateful that you’ve cross-posted this from your own blog.

    I agree, too, that these are decidedly UNromantic images of crust/hobo life. They tell it like it is: filthy, vibrant, addled, stubborn, transient, violent, unsettling, funny and deeply human.

    I hope Brodie’s okay, wherever he may be.

  10. Heather Says:

    these images are very beautiful, in their own way, but the youth of the subjects must contribute largely to that – their unlined skin, their haircuts which are stylish in their own way, their clothes which reflect the way they must have dressed before they became homeless. But then the photo of the rough-looking older guy with the tattoo on his cheek, a beard, and the baseball cap – this is what these beautiful young rebels will turn in to if they remain homeless. Ultimately it’s not a romantic life. I hope the photographer’s ok, wherever he is. He has a talent for catching people’s spark.

  11. Sarah Les P Says:

    these are beautiful.

    There was a canadian documentary made by a woman who decided to just hobo it out for a summer, and documented the tent cities, the real danger, and the romance of riding the rails.

    However, I cannot remember the name of the film. which sucks.

  12. whelky Says:

    yea, these are so awesome and i hope mike brodie is okay

    i disagree with these being a stark portrait of homelessness in america though. train punks and crusties =/= hobos. i recognize at least two of the people in those pictures and would never describe them as hobos at all. in my own experience of riding trains, most of the people in these circles aren’t homeless and staying in squats/riding the rails is more of a “poor vacation” than anything else. of course there are some actual destitute homeless people involved, but i’ve never seen any that look this arty or stylish.

  13. greenpencil Says:

    I don’t have anything meaningful to add to the discussion but this. The guy in the last picture kinda looks like Nick Cave.

  14. Mer Says:

    Whelky, I guess my definition of “hobo” is a bit off… but not TOO far off! :) I don’t immediately think “actual destitute homeless” when I hear the word, maybe I should?

    But I actually get a bit confused when folks use it as a default word to describe a homeless person, because as far as I know, it’s a slang term that popped up in the American dialect in the late 1800s specifically to describe train-hopping travelers and migrant workers with no permanent address. Homeless, yes, but still movin’ and shakin’ on the railroad.

    I’ve heard a couple of my own friends who’ve ridden the rails refer to themselves as such, despite not being seriously down and out. They certainly were not destitute, and most of them had parents eager to put a roof back over their heads.

    I’m sure the difference between poor young vacationer and actual hardened, homeless train-hopper becomes very evident once you’re riding the rails. :)

  15. Kale Kip Says:

    I don’t think the actual hardened, homeless train-hopper exists. This is what you do when you want to piss off your rich parents. These are kids trying to live like dogs. If you are really poor, you are fighting to preserve your last bits of humanity.

  16. Mer Says:

    Hey, Kale? Not trying to be combative here, but if you’d be willing to talk about it, I’m honestly curious to know where your obviously deep scorn is coming from.

    My own view is that there are probably as many reasons for train-hopping as there are people who do it. And while a lot of the kids I know who’ve lived this experience were middle class or wealthier, I also know some who road the rails away from some pretty awful, squalid home lives.

    “I don’t think the actual hardened, homeless train-hopper exists.”

    I’m pretty sure there’s evidence to refute that claim, but why don’t you think so?

  17. Kale Kip Says:

    Fuck Mer, is it that obvious?

    Well, if you really want to know:
    *lies down on the divan*

    I’ve been involved in my local squat scene since I was about 15. It requires quite some work to renovate an abandoned building and to keep it fun, accessible and edgy. And you really need all of that to maintain it, because when it is no fun, people won’t invest their spare time. If it isn’t accessible, people won’t visit. If it isn’t edgy, well, you kinda missed the whole point.

    In my particular case, the work of me an my friends paid off and we got pretty successful. Then all the hobo’s started showing up. We’d organise a free concert, they’d bring their own beer and we could pay the band out of our own pockets. They’d decide it is a good idea to break the windows of a local diner in an attempt to “smash capitalism”, we get to answer to the municipality who tries to shut us down.
    Imagine trying to organise an art-exposition when there are dogs fighting in your venue and their smelly owners crash down in a corner with a tray of beer and start having a belching contest. How the fuck can you keep people motivated to put their spare time in such a place? I’ve been dragging assholes like that out of our place for ages, but they just move on and make way for other hobo’s. I can’t see what people find inspiring about that. I only see them discouraging people that actually are trying to build something.

    And eventually I became one of those discouraged people. I still write press releases for my old squat and help out with the lobbying and all. But I hardly go to the place anymore, because I can’t stand the crusties.

    So that is the personal part of my scorn for hobo culture.

    The other part is more fundamental. It really upsets me how in our present culture, people are treated more and more as convenience oriented animals rather than creative individuals. In our culture, creativity hardly gets any attention anymore, you can forget about it being rewarded. There was a post about the deterioration of MTV here the other day, so I guess you know what I mean. It is part of the reason why I love Coilhouse.

    It might go against the ideas these hobo’s preach, but from what they practice I think they are the paramount of convenience dominated culture. These people are about consumption and consumption alone. All their choices go out for the cheapest: the cheapest food, alcohol, means of transport, heating (a dog) and housing. There is no other motives than laziness and primary urges. It is like staring into a void of humanity.

    Why I think the hardened homeless train-hopper doesn’t exist is that if you rail away from an awful squalid home life, you’d probably want to end up in a better place. There is no reason you would stay in an awful, squalid situation on the road. Unless you become a junkie, then you just stop caring and then there’s no reason to travel anymore. You just end up in a big city and you’ll die there.

  18. Mer Says:

    I hear you loud and clear, friend. Thanks for taking the time to answer so thoroughly and thoughtfully. I understand where you’re coming from much more clearly now, and the squat situation you describe would have frustrated the shit out of me, too.

    Re: hardened homeless train-hoppers…. What do you know about the FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America)? I’m sure some of that has been hyped up, but there’s something to it, no?

  19. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Kale: Danke for that insight. :)

  20. Joey Says:

    I feel conflicted about Kale’s statements above. It sounds like Kale and friends were imposing structures born of familiarity with privilege (IE socially managing an audience or housemates, organizing an art exhibition, etc) upon a group and way of life that do not follow those structures by their nature (IE people who have chosen poverty and homelessness or been forced there by circumstances who do not follow mainstream exercises in politeness or privileged structures of behavior, or never had these modeled for them) – IE producing a frustrating situation for him/herself by his/her own assumptions about how people should behave. I hope that makes sense. I agree that there are those who are the ultimate lazy consumer, and that most people living this life are living directly off the systems they purport to despise.

  21. Andy Says:

    Thanks for the great insights in the comments everyone, I used to live in a place that had a major freight junction right up against an area full of fairly low rent apartments near a college, it’s just the sort of place for the occasional appearance of people living this life and I’ve always been curious but too timid to approach any of these folks when i see them.