This Week In Photography Books – Mike Brodie

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve always loved “East of Eden.” Such a brilliant book. My brother and I didn’t get along well, for years, so the novel just made sense to me. I’d never before read anything that resonated on the personal, intellectual and spiritual level. That Steinbeck, man. What a genius.

It’s not the opus most people think of, though, when the great man’s name comes up. Like Walker Evans and the Great Depression, when most hear Steinbeck, they go right to “The Grapes of Wrath.” Dust covers everything. People roam and wander. Desperation wafts thickly. “Okie” is an epithet. And Tom Joad is a character that sticks.

Hell, even Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen mined his well-worn talent, (perhaps for the last time,) when he wrote “The Ghost of Tom Joad” back in ’95. If ever there were a story that sells in America, it’s the wandering vagrant, riding the rails. (Hey Acorn, you got any spare strips a duct tape? Got me ‘nother hole in mah overalls. Landed funny comin’ off that goddamn train.)

Much as I love to tie these reviews back to my own life, today, I’ve got nothing. Sure, I’ve been around, but always from the comfort of a car, bus, plane, or passenger train. I’m just an average, everyday civilian.

As opposed to Mike Brodie, whose project “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” recently exhibited at Yossi Milo in New York, and was released earlier this year as a beautifully produced book, by Twin Palms. No, this dude has seen his fair share of disemboweled varmints, festering sores, and never-washed hair. And he seems to be spry, if the pictures are to be believed. (Fence jumping in the opening picture? Great way to kick off the narrative.)

Mr. Brodie spent a few years hopping freight trains, and hanging out with the kind of kids who would emerge from a test-tube birth, if the parents were Ryan McGinley, Nan Goldin, and the aforementioned Californian, John Steinbeck. (What? You can’t have three parents? Says who?) They’d be glamorous, if they weren’t so dirty. They’d be normal, if they weren’t so misunderstood. They’d be happy, if they weren’t so damaged.

These photographs have gone everywhere, (as have the protagonists,) and it’s not hard to understand why. Looking at this book gives you a window into an unseemly world that you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. (Though the Sean Penn film from a few years back with the *Spoiler Alert* super-sad ending did a fair job, I suppose.) It’s the equivalent of US Weekly for the intelligentsia: see how the other half lives; we dare you to put it down.

I love to be surprised, but I don’t know if that happened here. It felt more voyeuristic than truly insightful; more entertaining than informative. But looking at the situation facing members of the artist’s generation, (he’s 27,) maybe this is just the most perfect set of “peoplesymbols” anyone’s come out with yet? It’s a bit cynical, but keeps it real at the same time. Sounds pretty GenY to me.

There are lots of photos looking down, which works very well, and the overall color palette is gorgeous: muted when need be, ugly when appropriate, and glowing at just the right moments. At a time when everyone is talking about Punk, because of the Met’s Fashion exhibition, this book gives us a sense of what the movement’s descendants might look like in 2013.

Basically, this is the ultimate project for now. It’s guaranteed to get people’s attention, well-crafted enough to hold it, yet not brilliant enough to force people to think too hard. It’s easy to tell yourself: boy, I’m glad I didn’t end up like that. But then you think, if I had, I’d be the one sitting on the gold mine photo project.

Is it worth it if you have to poop on toilets hooked up to vacuum cleaners, and change the dressing on your best bud Tray’s ass wound? I don’t know. But it’s too late for you anyway. This merry band of misfit roaming rebels has been photographed already. Find your own subculture.

Bottom Line: Excellent book, super-trendy project

To Purchase “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 17 Comments On This Article.

  1. I found this body of work while planning a similar (though much less immersed) photo project on train hoppers. Basically, I enjoyed the work, then retreated with my tail between my legs to find a different subject. Can’t wait to get the book!

  2. Mike Brodie didn’t set out looking for the “ultimate project” or any project for that matter. Through others, he tapped into a lifestyle of riding-the-rails all the while documenting friends and acquaintances along the way. The authenticity is what shines through. I wrote about him in early March, and after meeting and speaking with him, I appreciated the integrity behind the work. A good guy.

  3. I find it interesting that Brodie no longer identfies as a photographer and has gone on to blue collar work.

    http://mikebrodie.net/bio/
    “Brodie recently graduated from the Nashville Auto Diesel College (NADC) and is now working as a mobile diesel mechanic in his silver ’93 Dodge Ram. Although he has stopped making photographs, the body of work he made in four short intense years has left an enduring impact on the photo world.”

  4. Dear Jonathan
    I don’t want to turn this negative and I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on your intentions but some of your comments really come across as back handed compliments or just plain condescension. Comments like “gold mine photo project” (Is there such even such a thing? Even the most successful books aren’t exactly gold mines) and “super-trendy project” seem unnecessary. They basically imply that the photographer pursued a commercial goal instead of an artistic one. And they’re not really accurate assessments of the situation either. The Ryan McGinley “trend” is so past that even Ryan McGinley himself is not working in that manner anymore.
    The reason why this work is garnering some attention is that there seems to be integrity behind it. I haven’t seen the book and I’m not that interested in buying it but from what I’ve read this guy picked the lifestyle before he picked up a camera and didn’t intend to do anything particular with the pictures. I remember having read somewhere that even now he’s not really interested in pursuing a career in photography. Again, I’m not a huge fan of the work but I do think that it’s unfair and somewhat disrespectful to question the sincerity of his work solely based on what you perceive to be a trend.

    • David,

      I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt here, despite the fact that you were so supportive of last week’s obnoxious hatchet job. You’ve managed to stay respectful enough, despite your obvious distaste for my opinions. Let’s give dialogue a shot here, for once. (And this applies to the other folks -like Stan, Jake and Anne-Marie- who were kind enough to chime in. It’s what the comment section is meant for, no?)

      I complimented the crap out of Mike Brodie’s work. It’s great, and I said so. But you guys always over-look the supportive words, and focus exclusively on the criticism.

      I think the narrative of the “super-talented naif who gets discovered” is as alluring at the tale of the wandering hobo. It sells Mike Brodie short to assume that his success is accidental, and that this is just a phase. In my experience, the world doesn’t work like that.

      I didn’t quote from the artist’s statement at the back of the book, but there are a few telling sentiments, beyond his explanation of the backing he’s received from Paul Scheik/TBW books, Yossi Milo, M+B, and Twin Palms. (Hence the reference to super-trendy. Which they are.)

      “I went to San Francisco and let a man put his penis in my mouth; I’m not gay though.”
      “I deleted my website and stopped taking photos and became a diesel mechanic. I quit being a diesel mechanic, but I learned how locomotives work. I started taking pictures again.”
      “I don’t think much about being rich, but I hope I can make a million dollars.”

      Basically, I don’t think being “authentic” and “strategic” are mutually exclusive. Mr. Brodie came up very hard, and I’m sure his embrace of the “on the road” lifestyle was perfectly pure. But he also seems like a guy who’s street-smart enough to have known how, and by whom, his pictures would be embraced. He’s savvy enough to know what sells in the 21st C, and who his collector base might be. Not to mention capable enough to succeed at the highest levels of the art world.

      So while I get that you guys often get bent out of shape when I do anything but genuflect before other people’s work, (which is boring, btw,) in this case, I think you mistake my sarcasm for a lack of appreciation. Mike Brodie is a playa, and I learned long ago you don’t hate the playa, you hate the game. (Lest you make the wrong assumptions, a successful show at Yossi Milo can be insanely lucrative. Just ask Loretta Lux.)

      I would be very, very, very surprised if Mike Brodie rides off into the sunset. I would be less surprised if, as Stan suggests, he ends up paralleling Mr. McGinley’s career path, and shooting the occasional fashion campaign. But the future has yet to be written.

      Best wishes,

      jb

  5. I had the pleasure of seeing Brodie’s work in the Yossi Milo gallery — actually making a point to go in one of it’s last days showing. To me the work was not about garnering exposure or creating cash flow, but doing what everyone in American wants but does not necessarily have gumption to do — run away and get their hands dirty seeking something more than a cubicle. This is the real test of a person and helps create a definition of oneself.

    I resonate with Ann-Marie’s comment about it being interesting that Brodie no longer identifies as a photographer. But I can’t help to speculate that Brodie found what he was looking for — and the joy of being free came with a lot of pain. Certainly there is much of both in his photos. This could make anyone walk away from a medium, if not indefinitely, at least for a good period of time.

  6. Thank you for the thorough response and I apologize if my criticism was voiced a bit too harshly.
    Please do not misunderstand me, I don’t have a distaste for your opinions even when they’re negative. I just personally think they should be expressed the way you did in this response instead of hinting at them through little digs. Because if you take the work seriously, and I’m sure you do, it also deserves to be addressed seriously as far as it’s merits and it’s shortcomings are concerned. I may have misunderstood your intention but I feel that the “trendy” label is somewhat belittling. And frankly, it seems to be more about your feelings toward the art market and less about the work itself.
    I think the reason why your supportive words sometimes are overlooked is that if you use back-handed compliments like “trendy” as the negative part of your review it calls into question the sincerity of the real compliments. At least that’s how I as a reader felt in this case.
    But again, I might be misunderstanding what you mean by trendy. You named a few established galleries and book publishers where his work is displayed. Fair enough but I still don’t see how that is linked to the notion of trendiness. It’s not like they represent many other photographers with similar work. You can’t call a particular thing trendy just because it’s successful. It only qualifies as a trend if a lot of people are doing it.

    As far as the Brodie’s work is concerned, I disagree about the similarity to McGinley’s work. McGinley’s work is a fantasy. He casts models, uses a bunch of assistants and helpers, goes to the places he thinks look good and then creates the situations he wants to photograph. It’s not exactly diaristic/documentary like Brodie’s work. I think both of these approaches have merit but one should be careful to compare the two simply based on slightly similar aesthetics. And it’s also somewhat dangerous to draw conclusions about where Brodie’s career is going based on what McGinley did/does. McGinley was an student in art school who made art projects and now he’s an established art photographer (who also does fashion work, but what artist doesn’t these days). I assume he pretty much does what he always wanted to do.
    We have no reason to assume that Brodie has the same plans for life as McGinley had unless he says so. And even then it would be pure coincidence.
    I share your distrust of the narrative around Brodie but it’s still problematic to speculate too much about what we don’t know.

  7. Hi David,

    It’s my job to make connections and proffer opinions. They are just that. I don’t expect everyone to share them. But it irks me when people assume I ought to be exclusively serious all the time; kowtow to the gods of convention. I can respect an artist’s talent and work while still cracking wise. Again, these things are not mutually exclusive. Expand your mind, brah.

    You’ve latched on to Ryan McGinley and “trendy” while seeming to skip the rest of the text. That is your prerogative, but doesn’t make for a particularly thorough read. To me, “trendy” means hip, fashionable, of the moment, successful in a manner that reflects cogent aspects of the Zeitgeist. (Unemployed youth, Recession-era America, dumpster diving, mutable sexuality.)

    I also compared Mr. Brodie to Nan Goldin, who photographed her damaged, edgy friends, and John Steinbeck, who is one of the greatest writers who’s ever lived. Solid Company, no? And you might want to check in on Ryan McGinley’s “Beautiful Loser” phase from ten years ago. (Edgy young friends, vomiting and partying in downscale hipsterdom on the LES.)

    I respect that you’ve taken the time to parse the review to the degree you have, because it speaks to your passion for photography and capacity for critical thinking. And your manner distinguishes you from others, whose personal attacks are not welcome here. But you might enjoy/understand these articles more, and perhaps have a bit more respect for my effort and intentions, if you were willing to admit the humor and absurdity into your consciousness. (ie, three people, including a dead guy, cannot make a baby.) If you don’t accept that there is validity to that aspect of my work, you’re going to have problems every week. Which will get boring quickly.

    jb

    • Thanks again for the response, Jonathan. I won’t bore you with a long reply but just a few last comments (“last” only in regards to this weeks book review. I’m not suicidal :-) ).

      Humor, absurdity and sarcasm are all fine in my book, my only problem is when it turns to ridicule and condescension. Both much too strong words for what I perceived in your review but I’m oversimplifying my point for the sake of brevity.

      Your explanation of what you mean by the word “trendy” helped me better understand your point and I think that’s where most of our misunderstanding comes from. But I do have to – respectfully – say that I’m pretty sure you’re using it incorrectly unless you incorporate the aspect that many people are doing the same thing.

      I’m looking forward to your next review and I will try my best to refrain from commenting. Not because I don’t enjoy a good argument about photography but because I’m starting to feel a bit bad for taking up your time and making you write these long responses to my comments.

  8. I have found that this work connects strongly with people in their 20s. Personally, while I find the photographs well made and interesting to view, there is something about them that bothers me. In a way, I feel like this lifestyle is being glamorized. More specifically, that is how I am reading the pictures.

    It probably has something to do with seeing so many stories about the homeless and hobos in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Michael Williamson’s book The Last Great American Hobo is one of the books I am referencing in my mind.
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Great-American-Hobo/dp/1559582995

    Coming from Twin Palms , I am sure the book is very well made.

    • Hi Tom,
      Given the digs I took at GenY, I too was wondering the age of those who were critical of the review above. (I know Jake Stangel’s a young guy.) I’m sure our GenX-ness makes us particularly skeptical of this work. But it is very well done, to be sure. Excellent, really.

      FYI, after eight months of staying out of this forum, no matter what, I’ve recently decided to rejoin the conversation. As always, I appreciate when people like you take the time to read, and then chime in.

      Best wishes,
      jb