In Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the arrival of railways in the 19th century symbolises the taming of America's great expanses of unforgiving country. Once trains could reach those remote trading outposts and the ranches of Arizona, Dakota, Nevada and California, so women, water and other essentials of civilised life could be brought out to far-flung locations previously only familiar to cowboys, Colt revolvers and whisky casks. The underlying premise in Leone's magnificent film is that once the era of the steam engine had pulled into town, the Wild West was doomed.
The movie's brilliant script had been written by a group of talented European cinephiles, including Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. The latter shared a general sympathy with Marx's thought. And, as an economic argument, their case - that the railroad made the Big Country smaller and safer and simultaneously concluded the age of the lone gunslinger - is a solid and thoroughly reasonable one.
But it is hard to imagine that a film director could have seen the coming of railways as an ending of one kind of legendary, romantic outlaw - the cowboy - without also acknowledging that they also made a new, equally potent mythology possible: that of the hobo. Otherwise known as the itinerant tramp, or the railroad rider, the hobo is the person who navigates a dangerous journey across huge distances by secretly sneaking onto freight trains in remote locations.
Hobos have been around as long as the railways themselves. George Bernard Shaw sponsored the Welsh writer W.H. Davies, who published Autobiography of a Supertramp in 1908. It was all about the American hobo lifestyle, complete with depictions of "terrifying" illegal train journeys. With the Great Depression of the '30s and the great hardships and tides of homelessness it brought, the hobo became a more conspicuous villain. A hero or villain of hard times, depending on your standing in society.
In the '70s, as American life became ever more commodified, consumerised centralised and increasingly under surveillance, the hobo re-emerged as a romantic hero. In '71, three years after Once Upon a Time in the West, James Taylor wrote a wistful, drifterish song, "Riding on a Railroad". Two years after, Robert Aldrich's film Emperor of the North Pole, set in the '30s pitted Lee Marvin as a hobo called "A- No.1" against Ernest Borgnine as the brutal and vindictive railway security man Shack. As Marvin's character becomes increasingly notorious for evading the authorities, he becomes a folk hero to his fellow hobos, who are simply trying to survive a brutal system without getting beaten to death for their efforts. Right up to recent films about the romance of the great open, such as Sean Penn's Into the Wild, railroad riding has continued to embody the ultimate modern possibility for Huck Finn-style escape. And there is plenty of hobo in the pastoral portraits that enhanced Ryan McGinley's career.
The other hobos know about A-No.1 because he tags his hobo name on the walls of the train he rides. By the '30s, hobos had not only developed elaborate pseudonyms, but also sophisticated code systems, which informed fellow riders where they had travelled, who they were, and warning them of danger from authorities. Come the '70s, this anti-establishment, system-smashing school of art was again appropriated in to the burgeoning graffiti culture of America's urban subways.
Of course, all the best grouches say today's cleaned-up, homogenised New York has lost a lot of its soul since the authorities took steps to prevent the wild and dangerous practices of spraying graffiti on subway carriages. These days, if you are in a city, caught on CCTV, tracked on your phone and tweeting the minutiae of your daily movements, it is hard to pretend you can get away from The Man or live a free life based on your rules, instead of his. If you want to get away from the rat race and The System, reconnect with the elements, then you have to go off-radar, beyond mobile-reception, and way past the comforts of this over-civilised, sanitised, modern urban life.
That is one of the reasons why the photographs of Mike Brodie remain so powerfully memorable. Brodie, who originates from western Florida, was born in 1985, and - because he used one of their cameras until the stock of film ran out - has also been given a moniker as "The Polaroid Kidd". This autumn, he will release a new book of work with boutique publishers Twin Palms. When he was 18, he left home and spent four years meeting and photographing hobos - or, in his words, documenting "travel culture".
In the warm, painterly tones of the Polaroid paper, Brodie's portraits of railroad riders, drifters, dropouts and damaged people - despite all the evidence of hardship - possess a real ravaged beauty to them. One writer called them "amazing" and compared them to Depression-era photographs of hobos, "except with facial tattoos". They are amazing, and evocative of a way of life that most of us don't and won't ever know yet romantically continue to dream about. Their subjects are more exotic and somehow more authentic than any of our 9-5 lives could hope to be. You don't know whether to consider these people - surely the last remaining North American tribe to evade containment by the establishment - as objects of admiration or sadness. Or whether your sentiments are based upon envy of their mystery, their charisma, and disappointment at your own safe, circumscribed, by-the-book existence. The railroad less travelled; the life less ordinary. However you wish to call it, the dream of a wilder life will inevitably call each of us at some point or other.
Mike Brodie's new book A Period of Juvenile Prosperity is out September 2012, published by Twin Palms.
M+B gallery, LA and Yossi Milo, NY, will both show his work this autumn/winter.