George Byrne: “Be comfortable in the unknown.”

George Byrne: “Be comfortable in the unknown.”

For Sydney–born artist and photographer George Byrne, the essence of a city lies in its everyday landscape — the spaces, the gaps, the surfaces. This aptitude for capturing the surreal and sublime fuelled George’s itch to travel and then saw him relocate to Los Angeles in 2011, where, immersed in the strange transience of the city, his artistic identity flourished. The past decade has seen George work towards two solo exhibitions each year, all while amassing a remarkable Instagram following for his escapist imagery. In 2020 George produced his first photography book 'Post Truth', featuring a selection of photographic compositions from his series of the same name. We chat to George about how Los Angeles has shaped his creative practice and why the city was the ideal fit for a photographer who finds endless inspiration just by walking down the street.

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ON CALLING LOS ANGELES HOME

I got to a point in Sydney in my early 30s where I became very keen to live somewhere else in the world. I started off with a working visa in New York, and I’d already been to LA a fair bit visiting my sister who was working there. I thought, between those two cities and the rest of America, I’d work something out. I stayed in New York for four months when I got there, then came to LA in September 2010, and never left. 

Before I relocated here, I would visit LA and leave with no greater understanding of the place whatsoever. This strange city became a great source of curiosity for me. Every time I’d go, I would stay in a different part of town that had nothing to do with the previous part of town I was in. It seemed to have no centre. I describe LA as an endless suburb that leads to nowhere. After moving here, there wasn’t really a moment when the light bulb went on and I felt that LA was truly my home. It was more that the months turned to years and I was still here. I guess looking back, it was just a good fit. In my first few years I was like a kite spinning in the wind. I loved the feeling of starting life again in a new city; learning all the new streets, and getting to know the different areas, I found all that incredibly exciting. 

ON LA’S URBAN EVERYDAY LANDSCAPE

Physically, the materials LA is built out of are completely different to what you see in Sydney. In a base visual sense, you notice a lot of stucco, matte finishes and painted walls. There’s a lot more low rise buildings here, and there’s a different kind of sunlight, which creates a unique interplay of shapes and structures. Unlike Sydney, there’s no brown or red brick here, and there’s also no historic buildings or old pubs. It’s got this sort of makeshift feel about it.

There’s also this totally schizophrenic architecture here. You’ll have a mid-century house next to a Dutch house, next to a worker’s cottage. It’s completely all over the shop. There are no areas where things follow the same stylistic direction. It’s really every man for himself, which I found fascinating. I’m inspired by really low-fi, basic urban material. I don’t tend to take photos of conventionally beautiful buildings or architecture, so the ‘everyday’ in LA is really an ideal urban landscape for me to explore. I find something new in it every time, even when I’m not actively looking.

ON GROWING UP IN INNERCITY SYDNEY 

I grew up in Balmain. My family weren’t really predisposed to the arts in a professional sense. I look back and think maybe there is a sort of creativity in my parents across different realms, like writing and drawing, but they certainly weren’t doing it professionally. My sisters and I somehow — for reasons none of us can really understand — ended up following creative pathways. I think this was due to relaxed parenting, which allowed us to explore different things we liked to do. 

Balmain in the 80s and 90s was a pretty creative hub. It was sort of like a small town in the middle of the city. It has an unusual geographic set up for an inner–city suburb, being on the Peninsula. There’s no main drag going through it to connect it to the city. Balmain was actually a bit of a dump when I was growing up. It was an industrial suburb for pubs and boat building quarries and factories. It’s the complete antithesis of that now. I’m a musician as well, so Balmain’s pub scene had a big impact on me, there would have been 30 or 40 pubs there in the 90s. There was a lot of live music and young people. I became really immersed in that. 

For more than 10 years, photographer and artist George Byrne captured the candy floss-colored geometries of LA’s urban landscape, later collating them in the series ‘Post Truth’. Images courtesy George Byrne. Portrait of George Byrne at top of article and bottom of article by Justin Chung.

ON DISCOVERING CREATIVE IDENTITY

As a kid growing up, music always seemed more aligned with going out and having fun, compared to say, going out and taking photos. Having your own exhibition isn’t a vision many 15 year old kids have. My interest in photography, painting and drawing happened around my late teens. Initially I was more interested in painting and drawing. I guess I didn’t think of photography so much as a fine art medium until I went to university. 

I went to Sydney College of the Arts, and that’s where I jumped into photography and learned more about the history of it. As soon as I started engaging with photography I knew I wanted to make painterly–looking photos. Maybe that was because I was already really into painting, and I was familiar with the basic principles of composition. I also appreciated why certain paintings made me feel certain ways. When I first picked up a camera, I looked through the lens thinking, ‘Oh, this is a ready–made painting!’. It seemed a bit easier than brushes and a blank canvas. But as my studies progressed, I realised there was a lot more to it than that. 

Los Angeles is such an atypical city. It feels like a giant whirlpool of different things happening, people coming and people leaving, there’s always this feeling of transience.

ON STAYING CONNECTED TO AUSTRALIA

I’ve lived in LA for 11 years. My relationship with home has become stronger the longer I’ve been here. A big part of that is because I’ve started working with the well–established Olsen Gallery in Sydney. Their support and vision for my shows has really changed the way I operate. It’s taken things to a new level. Working with Olsen Gallery has made me feel closer to home, helping me keep that sense of connection with Australia.  

ON YOUR EVOLVING CREATIVE PRACTICE

When I started shooting in LA, I was doing more conventional photography. Generally, I was working with 35mm film, and I was even using my phone. As my work evolved, I went back to my medium format cameras and started experimenting with manipulating the images in various ways. 

My work is always evolving. I think each group of images subtly carry the DNA of the previous group. Say there are 10 works in a show, there’ll be one image that’s like the arrow pointing to where the next series might be heading. There’s also another image which is the arrow that points back to where I’ve come from, and there’s one image which sort of bridges the two. That’s how my exhibition practice generally works.

To celebrate the release of George’s book — by the same name as the series, ‘Post Truth’ — Domicile (n) gallery in LA hosted an exhibition showcasing a selection of the abstract industrial scenes. Images courtesy George Byrne.

ON INSTAGRAM AS A VISUAL PLATFORM

I think Instagram has played a big part in tuning my visual sensibility since I’ve been here, and it’s interesting to look at the progression of my work on the platform. It was part of the reason I started exploring the process of manipulating my images. As a photographer I feel like I had a bit of a head start with Instagram in that I was already shooting square format film, and I was already capturing these LA landscapes that people are so fascinated by. It felt like a perfect alignment for me, a really valuable tool. Within Instagram I have this real–time interaction with fans of my work, which I’d never had before as an artist. Prior to being on social media, I just had a couple of collectors of my work, and people who came to exhibitions and who I might never see again. 

In a base visual sense, you notice a lot of stucco, matte finishes and painted walls. There’s a lot more low rise buildings here, and there’s a different kind of sunlight, which creates a unique interplay of shapes and structures.

ON A VIEWER’S EXPERIENCE OF YOUR WORK

I’ve had lots of different feedback over the years, and there are a few different schools of thought on how people experience my work. Most people, who see it for the first time hanging in a gallery, are initially shocked by the size of the prints and the amount of detail within them. They’re big and immersive. From there, on one extreme end there are the people who scrutinize and want to know exactly how I created each image, and what is real and what isn’t. Then there are the people who just let the images wash over them and experience the work like they would a painting. It’s a really interesting mix and one of my favorite things about what I do. As an artist, I use the universal medium of photography in an unconventional way, so it comes with the territory that I get a real array of responses. Overall though, my goal for the images is to provide a portal for people to escape reality, even for a millisecond. 

ON THE SUBLIMINAL VERSUS THE SUBLIME

I think this idea is probably most evident in the series I did called Post Truth. I really started to mix very distinct foregrounds and backgrounds in my work and aimed to create an almost cinematic play on the locations that I was shooting. It’s often about looking for clues in my work, taking a minute to look beyond ‘surface’ level. Sometimes people find things buried in the images that they didn’t notice at first, things that might not be present in my earlier documentary format photos. But really, it’s all subjective. I’m not conscious of loading my images with hidden meanings or anything, but I do sense that the mixing of elements and manipulation of images is aligned with my evolution as a photographer. I think my Post Truth show was kind of an arrival at this point, because it featured work that was a balance between sourcing more ‘conventional’ landscapes and creating these more surreal dreamscapes. 

George’s first book is an enticing escape and the ideal LA souvenir. Images courtesy George Byrne.

ON CREATING YOUR OWN BOOK 

I guess many people who work with a visual medium have a dream of producing a book of their work. It’s such a great goal to have. I didn’t really get around to doing it sooner, because I was usually doing two shows a year. I knew if I took on a book project it would become a pretty big obsession, and I’d need to have the bandwidth to get it done properly. I was feeling pretty burnt out at the end of 2019, so I didn’t book any shows in 2020 in order to focus on the book. Creatively, it felt like the right time to start the project. I started to put the feelers out for the right people to help me bring it to life, as I really had no idea what I was doing at first. Making a book is like starting from scratch. It’s nothing like preparing your work for an exhibition. The printing process is different, the production process is foreign. One thing I did have going into the project was a really clear idea of what I wanted the book to be; the look, feel and quality of it. I was fortunate to connect with a couple of respected freelance print producers here in LA, who had actually worked on some of the classic photo books I had referenced for years. The whole thing felt incredibly timely. I’d never done anything that felt so right, in that moment. 

I knew the book would be a useful tool for me on many levels. Creatively and commercially, I thought it might be a way to offer something to all those people who have supported my work. Not everyone can afford a $6,000 framed piece of art, so I really wanted to have something that I could sell to a range of people who wanted to engage with my work. I also wanted to make a book that was high enough quality that people could cut the pages out and frame them. The hardest part was choosing the 54 images for the book out of about 150 from my Post Truth series. 

My goal for the images is to provide a portal for people to escape reality, even for a millisecond.

ON A PHILOSOPHY YOU LIVE BY 

Be comfortable in the unknown. I get a lot out of that, but it might seem a little counterintuitive to other people who find that thought unnerving. I find it quite enriching, being in something I’m not fully across, or that I might not fully understand.

ON PLACES TO TAKE A FRIEND WHO VISITS YOU IN LOS ANGELES 

I think we’d have to start by having breakfast on my back deck in Eagle Rock. Then we’d have bagels at Belle’s Bagels. My go-to order is the Everything bagel with cream cheese — keep it simple! We’d also go to Griffith Park for a lovely early afternoon walk. Then back home to sit by the fire. 

George (pictured below) finds inspiration in his everyday, from street lampposts to geometric shadows, and he chases these dulcet streetscapes from LA to regional Australia. Images courtesy George Byrne, portrait by Justin Chung.

ON YOUR FAVORITE BAR IN LA

The Ye Rustic Inn is just the funnest, grimiest, most authentic American dive bar. You walk in and you enter a time machine that lands in 1984 and it’s very dark. The staff are all wild and entertaining and dish out shots of Jamison in a dangerous fashion.

ON YOUR TOP PICK TO SEE LIVE MUSIC

The Greek Theatre in Los Feliz is an intimate outdoor amphitheatre nestled in the canyons at the base of Griffith Park. Just beautiful.

This strange city became a great source of curiosity for me… I describe LA as an endless suburb that leads to nowhere.

ON A SECRET SPOT IN LOS ANGELES THAT INSPIRES YOU

Angeles National Park. It’s 30 minutes north of the city, and it’s like you’re in the middle of the Blue Mountains, Australia. It’s really an undiscovered gem. 

ON A WINDOW OR AN AISLE SEAT

If the plane is crammed, I’ll go aisle. But if I’m in premium economy or business, I’ll go window. 

ON LA IN ONE WORD

Transient. Los Angeles is such an atypical city. It feels like a giant whirlpool of different things happening, people coming and people leaving, there’s always this feeling of transience. 

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Nuggets in this interview

inspiration

Post Truth

"Post Truth featured work that was a balance between sourcing more ‘conventional’ landscapes and creating these more surreal dreamscapes."

–George Byrne

events

The Greek Theatre, LA

“It's an intimate outdoor amphitheatre nestled in the canyons at the base of Griffith Park. Just beautiful.”

–George Byrne

food and drink

Belle’s Bagels, LA

“My go-to order is the Everything bagel with cream cheese — keep it simple!”

–George Byrne

inspiration

Griffith Park, LA

“We’d also go to Griffith Park for a lovely early afternoon walk.”

–George Byrne

inspiration

Angeles National Forest, LA

“It’s 30 minutes north of the city, and it’s like you’re in the middle of the Blue Mountains. It’s really an undiscovered gem.”

–George Byrne

food and drink

Ye Rustic Inn, LA

“The staff are all wild and entertaining and dish out shots of Jamison in a dangerous fashion.”

–George Byrne

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