City of angels: George Byrne’s lonely LA streetscapes
In full colour
Los Angeles is a ride or die kind of town, and a polarising one at that. Generally speaking, you either love or hate LA, there's rarely an in-between. From the concrete to the palm trees, the glamour, the grit, the sunshine and the stars, LA is both a city of dreams and dirty dissolution. It also seems to be having a moment-of-sorts not really seen since the mid-2000s, thanks to Hedi Slimane and his LA-influenced collections and recent show for Saint Laurent. Not to mention our cultural fascination with celebrities like the Kardashian-Jenner klan etc...
For George Byrne, an Australian photographer working in LA, however, it's not the city's famous inhabitants that thrill the shuttering of his lens. But rather, the banal man-made landscape; it's the architectural geometry, the way the desert light plays with painted surfaces, and the underlying strangeness, not to mentions the ghosts, that haunt LA's sprawling pavements of dreams.
In a similar vein to artists like William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Jeffrey Smart and even David Hockney's famed pool series, through the use colour, lines, frame, space and light; Byrne's works brilliantly highlight this odd sense of what I would call LA's juxtaposed "jovial loneliness". Dusty pavements lined with Barbie-pink rendered cement, a singular palm tree loitering above a neon sign in a Hollywood-style glamour font, angular staircases leading to what could be either a VIP entrance or fire escape, a lone inflated pink ring drifting in an azure pool, and natural shadows that fall across the ground as if part of an elaborate Wes Anderson-like symmetrical set-up. Not unlike what you find when you slice the veins of LA itself, Byrne's images may be harmonious and aesthetically pleasing, yet they are, on a deeper level, addictively unsettling.
You may know Byrne's work already, he does have 41.5k followers on Instagram, but allow me to attest, a 6-inch back-lit LED screen does this photographer no justice when you see his large scale prints hanging on a gallery wall.
His most recent exhibition, Local Division, is now in its final days at Olsen Irwin gallery in Sydney, and I highly recommend looking up from your phone long enough to take in this talented artist's sublime compositions.
As his show wraps, I spoke with him about his practice and his beloved concrete, palm-dotted muse. And as you'll soon see, much like the composition of his works, Byrne too is skilled in articulating the colourful nuances of the City of Angels.
As far as your practice goes, what came first? A love of landscape and architecture around you, or a love of photography?
"I think part of the origin of my fascination with industry and urban spaces came from growing up in Balmain (Sydney) in the '80s and '90s. At that time, the suburb was going though great changes from being a pretty rough factory town to a more gentrified exclusive place to live. I was drawn to that tension and the strange atmospheres of the abandoned factories. This led to an interest in disposable architecture and New Topographics photography and it all went from there. I like the idea of the 'ready-made' in photography, and the challenge of reclassifying urban spaces a distilling in them something you may not normally see or feel."
What is it about LA that made you fall in love?
"LA is actually a really fascinating place to be. It's just so many things at once: a riddle. It's misunderstood and much maligned; yet no one can leave it alone. It's like three quarters of the people who live here have no idea what they are doing here, how they got here or how long they will stay. It's just this sprawling encampment for gifted dreamers, delusional narcissists, disenfranchised wanderers, film industry people, burned out New Yorkers, hard working immigrants, refugees, sunburnt schizophrenics, frost-bitten Americans from the cold states looking to thaw out, filthy rich and dirt poor - all mixed together across nine cities and stitched together via vast slabs of elevated concrete. It's a pretty weird set-up."
The light is so perfectly timed in many of your shots, you must be a patient man.
"You know, I'm not really patient at all! I tend to just shoot what's happening when I arrive at the scene, if it's a really great situation I'll maybe hang about for 10-20 mins but then I'll keep moving."
Instagram has become a big tool in how people discover photography. What are your thoughts on how social media perpetuates art and how does that factor make you feel, considering you have so many followers.
"From my personal experience, social media has been an invaluable aid in my evolution as an artist. Ultimately, it's just the latest frontier for some visual artists to get their message across while also being a great way to let everyone know what you had for lunch. In many ways, the whole business is just completely ludicrous but then again so is pretty much everything. I think anything that gets people talking and thinking about art is a fantastic development for art and artists alike."
LA has so many tropes, faces and clichés. How would you describe the LA depicted in your images?
"My pictures tend to meditate on the less seen parts of LA, the glances, the spaces between the spaces, the dusty nameless street corners, the cut out pastel planes of thrown together shop fronts. Its here I feel the desert beneath the eerily empty streets. This is the LA I'm interested in."
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