When the art of photography began to find its footing during the mid 19th Century, it became a sticking point for artists working in paint. Here was a medium that could perfectly capture an image as it was seen by the eye, and quickly. Prior to this, painting had been the premium expression for depicting landscapes or portraits. As the art form evolved, it forced painters to pause and take stock of what it was they were doing: literally, applying paint to a flat surface to recreate the illusion of space. Of texture. Of depth. This crisis of conscience as we’ll call it led to the new dawn of painting – rather than let their works become fixated in one moment of time as photography would, they painted temporality onto the canvas. They exploited its flatness.
Two hundred years on and this same flatness that painters began to explore, and the way that paint could play with time within the image, is at the heart of Australian George Byrne’s photographic work. Capturing urban streetscapes of Los Angeles, where he now lives, Byrne’s work mimics those early days of painting’s emancipation from itself. The liminal spaces that he depicts with his photographs – locations that are taken from the real world yet turned surreal, sometimes even spliced from multiple locations to create something new – become abstract. Space within the frame becomes ironed out into shapes of candy-hued colours rather than the usual flaws contained with a man-made construct. The details are all familiar: the exterior wall of a building; a telegraph pole; street signs. The concepts are recognisable but the austerity of their rendering makes them uncanny.
It’s a tension – that convergence of real and surreal – that Byrne says he is comfortable with: “I think [in my photos] there’s a basic visual interaction between something and nothing.”
Currently in Montreal visiting his girlfriend, the 46-year-old is still riding the high from launching the second edition of his book Post Truth inside Paul Smith’s iconic Melrose Avenue boutique only 48 hours earlier. If you’re unfamiliar with the store, take a look at it on Google Maps. Located among a stretch of sun-bleached concrete buildings, its fuchsia exterior practically sizzles against the LA blue skies, a contrast that makes reality seem like the manipulated image and Byrne’s almost minimalist photos in comparison look like the real thing. It’s the perfect match for the hyperreal works Byrne’s known for, finding these jewels of colour in urban and industrial settings just on a grander scale.
His early years spent in the inner city suburbs of Balmain with his two younger sisters Rose (yes, the actress) and Alice laid the groundwork for his finely tuned eye to spot the magical in the mundane. “I’ve been interested in those kinds of anti-urban industrial spaces since I was 15, wandering around Balmain factories on the edges of Sydney. That’s where I used to go and take photos before I thought of anything really. I would go to the old Caltex station at the end of Louisa Road which had lots of old batteries around the back in the nineties. I think I find these spaces just relaxing places to be. Something about the absence but also the sense of activity that had been there that I found really interesting, that contradiction of loaded highly functional space that was now empty and I found something curious about that, that tripped me off.”
After high school, he went on to study and graduate from the Sydney College of the Arts, but it wasn’t until he arrived in LA back in 2010 that Byrne found the setting that would provide the basis for his signature aesthetic. “It was funny because LA kind of chose me as the visual muse,” he says. “I didn’t think when I moved to LA that I was going to have this reaction to the landscape, and before moving to LA as a photographer, I had been shooting all sorts of different things. I didn’t really specialise in anything.”
“I mean you’d look at my website 10, 12 years ago, and it was city, country, people, places, interior, exterior, sunrises. I was at that stage of just everything, and I didn’t foresee what happened at all when I moved to LA. But beyond photographing Los Angeles, what started to happen was, as I developed this style, I was finding myself really tapping in as much into my interest in painting as my interest in photography.”
It’s true though that the LA landscape is ideal for this kind of rethinking of urban spaces. In an essay about the city’s specific aesthetic, Perwana Nazif described the LA art experience as “counter to the ephemeral, decentered nature of the city itself, its fiction-making and philosophising. The specificity of L.A. art involves a sprawl…”
This sprawl – long, wide streets that transition from urban to suburban to commercial and back again on a loop and environmental conditions that cause structures to regularly be repainted as it rapidly fades underneath the bright sun – gives Byrne a constant supply of changing details to work with. In some ways, his photography is an archeology of LA’s streets. A time capsule of colours and details that can change from one year to the next as the city constantly reinvents itself. “I feel like I’ve become a default cultural preservationist or something where I see, of the least preservable things, because I’m not looking at great architecture most of the time, I’m looking at really pretty basic stuff. But I think as a result a lot of it goes, it gets demolished,” says Byrne.
“I just really think there’s an interesting bunch of elements in LA, and it all comes from the light and the low rise buildings and the endless blue sky which has become a part of the palette and just the kind of emptiness and this junk space, it’s called. It’s been referred to a lot, that is just strangely beautiful to me and a lot of other people.”
“I also think there’s a certain reassurance and joy to see just normal reality depicted so beautifully. That’s how I feel about it. I think it’s some fundamental thing where it’s reassuring and it gives people a sense of pride in place. Especially when I show in LA, I mean LA has been this aesthetic punching bag for the older cities for so long. And suddenly when people portray its everyday scenes in a positive way, it’s like, it’s amazing how real they are, so that’s been one little added bonus of being able to connect with the locals.”
What perhaps is most interesting about Byrne’s body of work, from his earliest exhibition ‘Local Division’ at Sydney’s Olsen Gallery in Woollahra in 2016 to his most recent, ‘Innervisions’, in New York City, is how it is the world of painting and painters, as opposed to photographers, whose practices and codes you can see embedded in his work. Such as the Australian artist and urban precisionist Jeffrey Smart (“You will often just see that single figure which appeared so many times in my work. I’m looking at a landscape and sure enough there’s always someone somewhere and that again made me think of Jeff and his work,” says Byrne); the colours of David Hockney; his reduction of the concrete form into blocks of colour are reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs.
“Painters like the Cubists and Constructivists among others were famous for doing that very idea of showing a vase at six different angles but sewing it all into the one portrait,” explains Byrne. “I think it’s definitely a part of what makes my work a little more interesting to look at. I do so often see people going, riding close like an inch off the surface of my work, looking for the stitches. But I’m not only adding and subtracting, I’m mixing perspective sometimes.”
This manipulation of the surface in Byrne’s photography is yet another reference to the world of painting. Of course, photography and the digital image by extension are today highly retouched (whether it’s professional post-production or simply a little cheeky FaceTune on the ‘gram) but Byrne’s focus is less on artifice and more on the art of facets. Perspective, depth and dimension are, through Byrne’s lens and later retouching, malleable.
For all their preciseness however, Byrne admits that their construction is more fluid. Intuitive, even. “It’s not an exact science the way I’m making the pictures,” says Byrne. “Sometimes there’ll be an image that is almost ready-made and just requires a bit of straightening up or a little bit of a shift here and there. And then other times, more and more recently I have been approaching them more as elements that are sewed together. Even sometimes elements from four different locations I’ll slice together.”