George Byrne uses Los Angeles to study loneliness

“Photography is a funny game,” says LA-based photographer George Byrne. “It’s a lonely sport – you’re on your own, on an obscure mission to capture something and you don’t often know what you’re looking for but you know when you see it.”

Byrne moved from Sydney to Melbourne, then experienced New York for one year before settling in Los Angeles – without much money or knowledge of the city – in 2011.

The alien quality of his photographs stems from this personal distance from LA.

“A lot of the time I’m shooting in LA I feel like I’m at war,” he says. “It’s like a desert. I’m a very white person and I get burned. I get so much satisfaction out of making pictures that beautify this bizarre landscape because it’s quite difficult to do it. People will keep their window up and the pedal pressed.”

Byrne documents the LA streetscape, driving and shooting in sweltering temperatures in search of shadows and symmetry. He frames a pastel narrative of the sun-blasted walls lining the roads. Few drivers stop here.

 The pictures are posted on Instagram, a primary stimulus for Byrne. The interactivity with his followers, which now number over 30,000, was central in his choosing a photography career.

“The question of the iPhone is really important for me,” he says. “Instagram gives you a varied practice, a way to flex your muscles and keep active.”

When, as a 30-year-old, he landed in America from Australia, Byrne initially absorbed himself with music, painting and acting.

After studying fine art, history, philosophy and anthropology at Sydney University, Byrne transferred to Sydney College of the Arts to major in fine arts history as well as photography.

His passion for painters informs his work. In particular, he has “obsessed” over the progression of Mondrian; who went from painting traditional still lives to minimalistic geometrical fragments. 

“I’m kind of doing a similar thing. Painting is really big in my field of view when I’m trying to make things. I sometimes think I’m just a lazy painter who turned to photography. Having said that, I also think there’s something totally unique in photography which you can’t get from painting.”

One of his most salient exhibitions was his iPhone-shot series Instant, which showed last summer in Sydney at CHASM gallery. It offered a window into LA streets through a blocky aesthetic that wittily flirts with the surreal.

For his Local Division show in September this year at Contact Photo Lab in LA, Byrne wanted to his photographs to be bigger, so he switched his mobile for three cameras – the Canon 5D, Pentax 67 and Mamiya 6. These enabled his largest prints yet, four of 50 x 60 inches, and nine 40 x 40 inches.

The Instagram-influenced minimalism remains, but Byrne found that using different cameras and exhibiting affected his process.

“The 5D is better suited for purely foremost painterly block-colour-based stuff that doesn’t include skies,” he says. “The film cameras capture anything to do with skies better. Film for me captures the essence or soul of space better than a digital camera, whereas digital cameras are great at pure block information.

Local Division was a huge learning curve in printing and framing – there’s a real science to it. The aesthetics of framing are half of the aesthetics of photography in my opinion, especially when you’re exhibiting.”

As well as Mondrian, the painter Richard Diebenkorn and the New Topographics movement have also influenced his work.

This modernist leaning means his work has become more abstract, Mondrian-style, with some street photographs almost indistinguishable from purely impressionistic pictures.

Lone walkers sometimes soften the stiffness of concrete lines in his images. Byrne shoots people candidly, without confronting their gaze, because he’s more interested in representing the place.

“Firstly, I don’t like the moment when someone sees the camera on them. If I want natural I can’t shoot people from a closed distance. 

“Secondly, once you connect with a human face in an image it’s human instinct for the picture to become largely about that face, not the broader image. I’m trying to paint a picture of a thing where the natural elements – humans or trees or whatever – are part of the tapestry of the scene.”

“The juxtaposition in nature and the built environment exists more potently in this city than I’ve ever seen,” Byrne says. “There’s not many people on the streets, but there’s always one. You’ll be on the most disgusting burnt-out street and a person will appear within a couple of minutes.

“It’s almost Hopper-esque: when you see a single human in a bigger built landscape it appeals to your sense of loneliness.”

The caption on Local Division’s press release claimed to be “breaking it down one palm tree at a time”, but does Byrne feel he has done this? “I feel like I have only scratched the surface,” he says.

George Byrne’s photography work will exhibit as part of the group show MY LA at Hive Gallery, LA, in September.