THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT THE urban landscape that has attracted photographers for decades — the light and shadow, the man-made structures that tower over the same men who made them.
It’s the urban banal that poses another question all together, and that is: is there beauty within this hard, cold, often-dull construct? Is there a way of finding colour, the natural, the softness and mystery within this concrete jungle?
George Byrne’s study of the urban banality of Los Angeles is one that draws instant appreciation. His ability to find rare beauty — the splash of colour, a spot of nature, the wink in a crowded room — is what makes his work so interesting. What others miss, Byrne isolates and focuses on, creating worlds of surreal simplicity and wonder in the everyday.
As a talented Australian, Byrne is an unlikely hero of the Los Angeles photography landscape, finding himself pursuing several artistic slants at the same time. He knows how to pour a good coffee, and as a musician and writer, knows a few things about creating a damn good tune. Most of his profile work is married with a beautiful piece of music, composed and performed by the man himself.
There is a common misconception that LA is a place limited to tourists, smog, traffic and posers, when in truth there are so many beautiful aspects to experience. Do you agree with this, and do you feel you need to convince people of this?
GEORGE BYRNE: Yes. I think broadly speaking, LA is not a very well understood city, and with good reason. It is so vast and lacks a simple visual icon thats ties it all together such as the Eiffel Tower, or the Opera House. 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 — labelled as Los Angeles. There is certainly ‘smog, traffic and posers’ but there is also stunning wilderness, rich Mexican history, a melting pot of cultures like no other city I’ve ever been in, and a massive art and music scene (and every other obscure subculture you can think of), all thriving and butted up against each other. It’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ town. In my experience, the only really negative assumptions about LA come from people who hate driving (fair call), actors who feel claustrophobic living in the centre of the acting universe, and displaced, proud New Yorkers that don’t get it. Other than that, most people I come across are very curious and positive about this strange place.
How did your Instagram success come about and how did it change the way you took photographs?
My Instagram following actually came about very unexpectedly. I had resisted getting an iPhone for years (I was worried it would take over my life), but as a photographer I was curious about the whole thing. Once I got a phone and started posting pictures, I found that more and more people were reacting to them. I’d been shooting with square format film cameras since my university days so I was immediately comfortable with that. I just began to have a really good time with it and it didn’t cost me a cent so it was win/win! The whole thing actually helped me in that it enabled me to take tons of photographs and get better at what I was doing, at seeing this new city I was living in. In terms of how it’s changed the way I take photos, I think it just helped me refine and explore a type of minimal urban aesthetic I’d been practising on and off since the very first time I started using cameras — but this time in colour.
Knowing that you studied Fine Art in Sydney in the early 2000’s (at Sydney College of the Arts), is it frustrating being thought of as someone purely from an online medium — or does it even matter?
I don’t think it matters too much. To be honest it’s still a real thrill to have people recognise my work at all, whether they think I’m an Instagram photographer or not. People who come to my exhibitions or purchase work tend to learn a bit more about my CV anyway. I also think that as I increasingly use Instagram to promote my broader art practice (not just post images), people will get a more all-encompassing sense of what I do.
How do you feel about the current breed of online photographer, one who may not have studied, or ‘done the hard yards’ learning the craft?
I think it’s cool and it serves it own purpose. Stephen Shore talks a lot about this, how photography in the smartphone age has become a language in itself. We wade through so many images every day that we’re incapable of retaining or processing in any deep or meaningful way. I say if someone takes a good picture they take a good picture, it really doesn’t matter to me which camera they use. Cameras are just a means to an end and it’s great that with phones, so many more people are engaged with images and art than ever before. Having said that, there’s obviously a giant technical and conceptual leap between taking a great photo for your ‘feed’ and going down the path of being a visual artist and trying to make a living out of it. For the latter you need to learn how to make physical prints, then think in terms of a cohesive series that has some degree of conceptual grounding. Then you have framing, presentation and galleries which is a whole other beast. What I’ve learned is that just like with any other trade, you only get good and make interesting and original creative breakthroughs when you immerse yourself in it completely, whether you use an iPhone, a 8x10 film camera or a paint brush.
As one who is always looking at the everyday instance as a possible image (and travelling so much to find that ideal shot), how does your work affect your personal life?
Yeah it can be hard to switch off at times but it’s not too bad. Years ago I experimented in shooting more Robert Frank-inspired street photography and I found that much harder. The pressure that came with looking for that ‘decisive moment’ (i.e. where the dog walks past and the kid falls off his skateboard while the couple kiss on the sidewalk all at once), ended up making me feel like I was unable to properly experience my own life. It started to feel less creative and more like the art of trying to be in the right place at the right time and banging out tons of photos. As much as I love and respect that genre of photography and the people that do it well, it just stressed me out. What I’m doing now better suits me; I still get a little manic when I’m in the zone but — aside from the sun — my subject matter stays still and it’s up to me to make it work.