The yard sticks

A train-hopping trip from the Polaroid Kidd's hobotopia to William T. Vollmann's tramps -- and the truths in between
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Photo by William T. Vollman

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I hopped my first freight train in the spring of 1993, outside a small central Florida town. My first train sat behind a drive-in theater along old Highway 301, among the pines sometimes seen in old photos of turpentine camps and prison work crews. Under a Southern moon, I battled mosquitoes and listened to a chorus of swamp frogs that must have been heard by the very men who built the railroad. I waited impatiently on the porch of a grainer car, as if it were the threshold of adulthood, for the train to carry me somewhere else.

As the '90s ushered in a new era of gentrified, cookie-cutter, chain-store cities, I crisscrossed the country several times on freight trains. Today, I still think about that place in Florida outside of time, and when I'm sick of computers and phones and NPR news, I find myself heading to the train yard. In recent works that seem eerily timed to headlines announcing an impending US financial collapse, the writer William T. Vollmann and the photographer Mike Brodie have headed there too. This resurgence of interest in train-hopping stories might be a barometer of public dissatisfaction.

The somewhere else I thought I wanted to go on that first train ride probably looked a lot like the romantic universe encapsulated in the Polaroid photos of train-hopping friends taken by Mike Brodie, a.k.a. the Polaroid Kidd. Brodie's photos, posted on his Web site, Ridin' Dirty Face (www.ridindirtyface.com), depict a hobotopia where packs of grubby kids (and dogs!) play music, share food, and forage in the ruins of postindustrial America, traveling from town to town on freight trains and homemade river rafts. Everyone's good looking and no one appears to be over 25.

As my first train left the yard that long-ago day, I sang some words by Johnny Cash because at 19 I wished my life were an epic country song. Similarly, the subjects of Brodie's pictures wear suspenders and fedoras and patched-up oversize suit coats, as if they've walked out of newsreels from the Great Depression. In Brodie's version of somewhere else, though, the Depression is glamorous. One of the most charming — and possibly most emblematic — photos in his current show at SF Camerawork depicts a young woman standing in the doorway of a rickety shack, a yard full of chickens pecking at her feet. At first glance, the image seems lifted straight from Walker Evans' classic photos of 1930s austerity in his 1941 collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But in Brodie's photo, the light is sensual, the mood somehow humid — it's summertime — and the woman is, incongruously, wearing a beaded ballroom gown.

Brodie's photos might depict a wish for a world uncomplicated by money or its absence — an aesthetic nostalgia for a time when no one had any money, and everyone had, perhaps, more integrity without it. Yet these images of romanticized destitution have, quite ironically, become high-priced art objects. Frankly, I find it creepy that art collectors will pay top dollar for highly aesthetic portraits of cute — and apparently penniless — teenage punk waifs staring guilelessly from dirt-smudged faces into the camera. Brodie's photos have become valuable just as the country stands on the edge of the kind of Great Depression they romanticize. The winner at age 22 of the 2008 Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers, Brodie is highly talented. But the buzz about his subjects suggests that the weary art world is willing to go to as great lengths as the train-hopping kids in a search for authenticity. The Great Depression to come is on some level longed for.

Brodie seems motivated by a sincere desire to celebrate his community. "I just want to spend the next couple of years traveling around, following the warm weather, and documenting the train-hopping youth of America," he said in one recent interview.

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