Most people need to try a lot of things to finally know what they want in life. This was certainly true of George Byrne, an outstanding Australian musician and photographer who through his photographs has given a unique twist to our view of Los Angeles. In this article, based on an interview with George, you will get to know the inspiring journey of his life, starting in Sydney, Melbourne, through hard times in New York City to Los Angeles, and finally reaching the exciting point in his career where he is now.
George has lived in Los Angeles for the last six years and has fallen in love with the city. Los Angeles is not a beautiful city like Paris, London, or San Francisco, but he has found another kind of beauty in this famous city. What is interesting in George’s photos is his surprising framing of geometrical patterns, contrasts and colours, in places that our own eyes would overlook. It gives beauty to the banal. George makes rubbish bins, shadows on the streets, lonely palm trees, grocery shops, cars, people who are not movie stars, or messes in the street seem like an abstract and minimalist painting. He gives life to our everyday scenarios.
“LA really fascinates me as a place and city. The energy, the buildings, the light, the people… I find it captivating whereas others don’t. And I was pretty lucky about it because there was no one making anything out of it. I loved it, so I decided to do something about it. It’s essential to work in a subject matter that is atypical.”
George began his career studying fine arts at Sydney University, focusing on painting and photography. After graduating, he spent many years trying different professions, from playing Santa in a Hallmark shop to auditioning for movies in Hollywood. And at the end, he wound up doing what had initially studied: photography. It took him around 20 years to end up in the same place, but without all the paths he went down, he would never have seen the world as he sees it now. The photographic style of George would not exist without these stories! It’s a good thing that there are jobs for Santas!
When you graduate from college, as we say in Guatemala: Así que a escupir a la calle (literal translation: you go to spit to the streets, meaning, “Welcome to reality”). George started working in construction and hospitality from the age of 16 through his 20s. Meanwhile, he continued taking pictures and making music. For a while he tried to work in commercial photography, but it did not really work for him.
“I am not really good in working in a studio, in following a brief. It is absolutely different to take a picture of shoes, than taking a picture for an exhibition. I wanted to use photography for my own creative reasons. It took me a while to work that out…”
So when George was 25, he started focusing on finding sponsors to make exhibitions. He got into a cycle of saving money, writing proposals to sponsors, putting on an exhibition and … starting the cycle all over again. In this way, he managed to travel to India, Italy, Spain, and other places, sponsored by companies like Lavazza. During his stay in Spain, George decided to end that lifestyle and dedicated himself for the next five years to making music and releasing albums. That led him for three years to Melbourne, a great city for live music, but when the music industry started falling into pieces [when it went online] in the mid and late 2000s, George lost a good music deal with a big label. That was the trigger that made him stop and refocus on photography. He moved to Sydney for a year, applied for an American touring visa, and in 2010 ended up in New York City.
“It’s so expensive. As a poor person, it’s a pretty brutal place to be. I worked in the kitchen and I did some assisting. Nothing that interested me, nothing was really feeling right. I felt that I was in Disneyland without any money to get tickets to go for a ride. It was still fun, but I didn’t feel that I could set up my life there.”
It was in NYC where he worked as a Santa at a Christmas event! All this made him grab his suitcase and move to Los Angeles, a city that is much cheaper, less competitive, and without a tough winter. After three years of being in the States, he got a green card, which gave him more stability and the opportunity to work in different areas. He found a job as a barista and did a little acting. “I found acting interesting but I really felt it was out of my depth. I had a good agent, and good contacts, but there was something about all this thing that didn’t satisfy me. I like making things, I like producing. There is where I get all my satisfaction.”
So George took out his phone and started taking pictures of what fascinated him in Los Angeles. He sent his photos to different galleries and in 2014 had his first exhibition called Insta LA (Instagram photos) at the Hemingway and Picket gallery. In 2014 he had another exhibition in Los Angeles and at the beginning of 2016 he exhibited Local Division at the Irwin Olsen gallery in Sydney. It was a huge success.
“You need to keep evolving. As an artist you can’t do the same things over and over. You need to keep it moving. The analogy of having an exhibition is like putting the hand brake on and everything has to come to a hold and this helps you think like: Ok, what have I got here, what am I doing? And then you try to cherry pick what you are doing and put it in a cohesive body. That’s the great discipline. Make the work and then stop to know what you are doing and punctuate your output. So that’s what I have been learning.
The key is finding little things, details on the way. There is so much to look at in the world that it’s hard to know where to even start. There is so much material. Lots of photographers that I have discovered are doing similar but different things. We are inspired by similar things. But having these shows and having more recognition force me to analyze myself and know where I want to go and how to continue developing myself as an artist.”
George recently bought a 4×5 camera and plans to take a road trip for 6 weeks in the US to take pictures for his next exhibition. He also is thinking of doing a portrait exhibition. One plan leads to another.
Trying things in life is the opposite of sitting around and pretending to be the Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Without trying different things in life and saying YES to opportunities, as bad as they might be, your chances of finding your own success are reduced to zero. It’s good to learn how to say no, but just don’t say no to everything.
If you are interested in photography or in getting good at anything based on persistence, George leaves you with these words:
“Instagram was a good tool in terms of validating work, to see if something is working or not. Trial and error. Some things work, some things don’t and you learn how to go along. But I do not go to people to ask whether something is good or not. I go with what moves ME. I learned to judge my own work and taste. You need to feel the alchemy of line, colour, and the shot itself. You just need to learn to trust in your instincts.
Photography is about keeping your eyes open. Sometimes you see an element, and you don’t have your camera, so you have to come back and make the shot. But this eye to see things, comes through practice. So that’s why I go back to Instagram! It’s all about daily practice. If you do anything every day, you get good at it.”