Grit and Sublimity in the City of Angels: George Byrne on Photographing an Underdog City 00:00
I’ve always had a soft spot for underdog places. I liked the idea that I was living in a city that was maligned and misunderstood, trashy and rough around the edges.

Aussie photographer George Byrne exudes the quiet confidence of one who truly knows himself. The longtime LA resident’s most recent show, New Order, evoked the pastel-noir that defines so many films and novels about his town.

By supersizing the interesting corners of everyday reality, Byrne takes the usuals of urban life and makes them unusual. At once, he reveals beauty in the town’s grit and tinsel, its natural beauty and special character, while also infusing his work with a hard-to-place sense of hauntedness.  

CONVICTS got a bit weird with George. We sent him a list of questions, and he recorded his answers, stream of consciousness onto a tape. With a little editing for clarity, here’s text from our conversations about the dream-state of swimming laps, the commercialization of self on social media, and finding sublime in the City of Angels.

CONVICTS

Tell us about living in LA.

GEORGE BYRNE

I love living in L.A. There is a sense here that you’re a little removed from you the rest of America. When I arrived in L.A. I had one of those moments where I saw the landscape and it was as though a thousand watts of electricity went through it. I was so inspired by what I was seeing and that was really the seed of what got me going down on the path I’m on. The city is the basis of the work I’m doing, and because of that I have a very strong affiliation with the city as a whole.

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How have you seen the city change?

GEORGE BYRNE

I happened to live here at the beginning of what people would call a sort of cultural renaissance. L.A. has always been an underdog town. It was considered more of a cultural backwater than bigger more established cities on the East Coast and it was in the last ten or fifteen years that it’s gone through huge change. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdog places. I liked the idea that I was living in a city that was maligned and misunderstood, trashy and rough around the edges. It didn’t have this strong sense of parochial pride or flashiness or confidence.

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Your recent show New Order brought such distinct LA vibes. How does the landscape here relate to your work?

GEORGE BYRNE

In the New Order series, I made a conscious decision to focus on the actual colors and surfaces of the L.A. landscape and the Palm Springs landscape. It was a process of analyzing very nondescript urban spaces on a very molecular level. Over time, I noticed I was starting to get these pictures looking a bit more like color collages. That led me to start to really look more at the interplay of color form rather than the actual landscapes themselves. Honing on on the textures and tones you find everywhere in LA was the real key to the content of the show.

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What is your process like in general?

GEORGE BYRNE

It’s funny, because my creative process feels like jumping into a swimming pool full of images and just flapping around a bit and seeing what I can find. I take a ton of photos and then I just dive in and cut through them. Sometimes, taking photos of a situation or a location or some little vignette or color or shadow is the seed of an image. From there, getting the image to where I want it to be is often a process like a crossword or sudoku puzzle. That’s the really fascinating part of working. That’s where the alchemy happens. It’s when I’m sifting through, looking at how one image bounces off another, looking at three different images — that’s how I see the fourth dimension. That is the really exciting part of the perception. When an image is working really well, there’s a feeling of perfect balance. That’s the aim of the game. I’m succeeding if I’m reframing someone’s point of view.

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How do you recharge your creative batteries?

GEORGE BYRNE

When I’m in the middle of preparing a show, during one of those cycles where I’m spending hours and hours sitting on a computer, it really helps me to get away. Running or walking, I often see what I’m doing from afar and will be able to think of solutions to problems with a lot greater ease than being in the middle of answering fifteen different emails. Clarity is something I get when I’ve removed myself.

When an image is working really well, there’s a feeling of perfect balance.
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How do you do that?

GEORGE BYRNE

L.A. is surrounded by mountains and ocean and desert all around, so you have a lot of options for escape. You can go up into the mountains and it seems like you are an hour away from the city when you’re only a mile away. You have wild mountain lions and deer running around on the edge of the sea. So that’s a resource that I use a lot. Lap swimming is probably the closest I’ve come to meditating. I’ve not tried actual meditation, but to me swimming is the closest thing I can get to that. It becomes all about breathing. You just still your mind is sort of reduce your mind to zero and you’re just sitting on a black line. When I get out of the water and there’s this strange sense of recharge, like I’ve just been a in dream state. When I’m running around, I’m much more inclined to engage with my thoughts and working through problems. But when I’m swimming, I just relinquish control and hit that meditative state which is really useful.

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What’s your experience of New York?

GEORGE BYRNE

L.A. and New York are just the absolute antithesis to each other really. Especially in a physical sense, you know when you think vertical, L.A. is horizontal. The energy of New York is electric, but I think LA has its own unique pulse.

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Are you very interested in what camera gear you use?

GEORGE BYRNE

I’m not sure the actual camera itself has ever really resonated with me that much. I use cameras on a very simple level, like a hammer. It’s a simple tool. I don’t use many fancy tricks I use. You know I honestly shoot ninety five percent of all my images at sixteen-to-fifty. My love of photography really comes from the results not so much the gear itself.

When I get out of the water and there’s this strange sense of recharge, like I’ve just been a in dream state.
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What are the biggest challenges in the photographer’s life?

GEORGE BYRNE

One of the oddest things I find with doing this is managing the administrative side of it all and editing photography. You can take a hundred photos a day if you want. The challenge then becomes spending days and weeks and months working through what you’ve got. Where I’m at now in my career, I get buried in emails, contracts deals, and I totally realize that is a great problem to have. I’m certainly not complaining, but to be optimally productive I’m going to have to learn how to manage my time and art in a way. Creatively speaking I don’t struggle to find motivation. I feel like I’ve got five years worth of work in my head. It’s more about finding the time planning it out.

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Do you find that your personal health affects your creativity?

GEORGE BYRNE

I’m in the most control when I’m feeling good physically. Having said that, the creative part of the job I do — actually taking pictures and forming a series — can happen at any time. And sometimes that comes best when you’re completely strung out and under-slept.

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What’s your relationship to social media?

GEORGE BYRNE

We’re was sort of forced into this curatorial role. We are all forced to make a shop front out of our personalities on social media. It’s completely overwhelming for some people and other people take to it very naturally. Personally, I just worked really hard on finding that balance and getting it right. I’m constantly working, but I’m always falling off to the left or to the right. So I guess it’s everything in moderation.