Another Side of Los Angeles with George Byrne
Los Angeles is a cultural microcosm—it reinvents itself every day, and the cityscape is a physical manifestation of this phenomenon; it’s a sprawling, massive, disjointed cluster of buildings against a haze-filled sky. Dorothy Parker put it best when she observed that “Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city”, that were all formed by waves of people who more or less shared the same vision; to come to the City of Angels, to cut off any ties to their old lives, and to lose track of time in a place where the seasons never change and everyone is a star.
In that sense, the city is transient to it’s core. For its 12 million or so inhabitants, there is no sense of belonging, because how can you truly belong to a city whose main industry is the perpetual production of culture on a mass scale for the world? Things flare up and fade quickly under the Los Angeles sun. Careers, relationships, businesses, ideas, buildings—nothing goes untouched by the harsh glare of that golden light. The city was made for people who are able to survive and thrive best without being anchored to any place, idea, or sense of self. It’s for those who can bob and weave through the constant pummel of change and find meaning beneath all the simultaneous decay and growth.
George Byrne is a photographer that moved to Los Angeles years ago from Australia and was able to understand the city in a profound way that takes most people a lifetime. His most recent photo exhibition is based around the concrete landscape of Los Angeles, where he captures the banality of the city’s “raw aesthetics [of] …washed out pastel planes, [and] run down 80’s architecture” by using “the light, the air, and the buildings and the fact that there are so few pedestrians that you get to see things really clearly and unimpeded.”
His approach to these photos portray a deep understanding of the city in an almost egalitarian sense; by bringing light and form to these forgotten spaces, he understands that nothing can escape the hand of time or the unapologetic Californian sun. The result is a beautiful, visually soothing play on the true colors of Los Angeles—the parts of it that are often overlooked, which are the most important parts because, despite being forgotten, they survived. Here, we talk to George about his thoughts on the city, his approach to photography, and the different experiences and environments that shaped his worldview.
Could you tell us what it was it like growing up in Australia?
I grew up in an inner-city suburb of Sydney called Balmain. I had a big family (three sisters), lived in a house right near an old shipbuilding dry dock, that later became a park, called Mort Bay. Growing up, we had a lot of freedom. Balmain is a peninsula suburb, so there is no big main road running through it. Everyone knew everyone. It was a bit like a country-town, and there was a pub on almost every corner—a legacy of the suburbs industrial past. My memories of it as a kid are of it being a really fun, hardworking, hard-drinking place… much at odds with what’s going on there now. Outside of the suburb I lived in, my memory of growing up in Australia is just the sheer amount of space we have there. Australia is so huge. Endless coastlines and a vast desert inland that very few city slickers ever go and see. I think in many ways it echoes California, which is probably why I’m so comfortable living here.
Do you believe that growing up where you did had any influence on your work?
Yes, I do, where I lived had a lot of old factories and unused industrial spaces. Some of my earliest memories using a camera were wandering around these spaces and taking pictures of the old machinery and mechanical bits and pieces. I enjoyed the space and the silence and saw beauty in it. I think these instincts are very much alive in the work I do in LA. I also think growing up in Australia I had space to daydream, to look and think about things, Australians are big explorers.
When and how did you decide that you wanted to pursue photography as your artistic medium of choice? Was there a specific moment in time, or a formative experience that lead you to it?
I had a few stops and starts leading to my career in photography. While I knew I loved it at an early age and went on to study fine art and photography at University, I was also someone who gravitated to all sorts of different things and found it extremely hard to buckle down and concentrate on one. I think I ended up choosing to concentrate on photography in part due to its relative newness as a fine art medium. That aspect has always excited me. Also, I got to an age where I realized if I didn’t really laser in on something, I wasn’t going to make anything really good. Photography was always a great constant in my life and came very naturally to me—so I went with it. Moving to LA was also a big part of the process of finding my voice as a photographic artist. I had a visceral reaction to the landscape here, and it very much drove the evolution of my work and my passion for working hard at it.
What is your photo taking process like? Could you walk us through that? What do you usually notice first when you stumble upon a shot? What do you believe is a key element in creating a good composition?
With the urban LA work, what I usually see first is a vignette of color and form, the seed of something interesting. Sometimes I’ll take a look and find there is nothing there worth shooting and other times I’ll take three rolls, it’s a very inexact science. Beyond that I think composition is such a mysterious beautiful thing, there are many theories as to what works and why but I don’t know if I believe any of it.
Who are some of the most important influences in your life, artistic or other?
In no particular order: Picasso, Mondrian, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, Jeffrey Smart, Brett Whitely, Walker Evans, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Aretha Franklin, Michelangelo, Donny Hathaway, Pink Floyd and so many more.
“I like unpretentious public spaces. I see beauty in simple things, but other than that it’s all a bit of a mystery.”
What was it about the City of Angels that drew you in the first place? Some people may see LA as this sprawling, chaotic mess of a city with millions of people and cars clogging its arteries, and yet somehow you’ve managed to portray a sense of beauty and sometimes, even an emptiness. What are you hoping to convey or capture with your photos?
Yes. I think broadly speaking; LA is not a very well understood city and with good reason. It is so vast, and it lacks a simple visual theme or icon that ties it all together such as the Eiffel Tower, or the Opera House in Sydney. Gavin Lambert put it well when he wrote: “Los Angeles is not a city but a bunch of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes..”. This makes LA more a collection of smaller cities that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, stitched together by giant freeways and—almost for convenience—labeled as Los Angeles. There is certainly ‘smog & traffic’, but there is also something within that visual framework that makes it, in part, so ugly that it’s fantastically beautiful. The raw aesthetics are all washed out pastel planes, run down 80’s architecture. It’s kind of playful and post-apocalyptic all at once. I think it’s primarily the light, the air and the buildings and the fact that there are so few pedestrians that you get to see things really clearly and unimpeded.
Why do you think that you can find beauty in what the rest of us might see as banality?
I have absolutely no idea; it just calls me out. I do have an inert fascination and respect for all things basic and functional though. I like unpretentious public spaces. I see beauty in simple things, but other than that it’s all a bit of a mystery.
Your Instagram is creeping towards 140k followers, which shows that the IG community really loves your work. What are your thoughts on the platform for photographers like you? Pros and cons?
My Instagram following came about very unexpectedly. I must have been one of the last people to even get an iPhone. I was holding out because I was concerned it would take over my life. It did. But I have to say, once I started taking pictures—it was good fun. Simple as that. I’d never been the type of photographer to take my cameras everywhere so once I had an iPhone I just took millions of photos. So I think the pros of Instagram are that it gets you engaged, it hones your compositional skills, it’s free, and it provides the outlet for simple daily practice and real-time feedback and support. The cons are that it is addictive and is probably contributing to the gradual decline of the human species’ average attention span.
What would you say is the best piece of advice anyone has given to you about pursuing this line of creative work?
Other than encouragement along the way, I don’t recall a standout piece of advice or anything like that, but I do think the support of my parents and family since I was young has played a pivotal role in making this career choice feel possible.
If you could take a moment to look at your life in its entirety right now—from Australia to Los Angeles, with all your awards, solo exhibitions, magazine spreads, and IG notoriety under your belt—how would you describe the journey so far as a photographer and as a human being, and where do you hope this journey will take you?
It’s funny I don’t often just stop to look at the bigger picture like that I’m always just nose to the grindstone but right now with the show in NY just finished I do finally have a minute to take a breath. I’ve been really lucky and had a good run the past four or five years. To be able to exhibit my work in all these different places and survive off it—it still feels quite novel, but I’m enjoying it very much. It makes me want to work even harder. I would describe my journey as a human being more broadly as a complete trip, plain and simple. Incredible. As for the future I hope to just keep creating and growing as a person, come what may.