Something Isn’t Quite Right in George Byrne’s Photographs

The Australian artist’s latest photo series, on display at Olsen Gruin in New York City, stitches together scenic collages of Los Angeles, Miami, and Sydney to create radiant, semi-fictional landscapes that feel slightly off.

Blue Wall Miami, 2019

At first glance, George Byrne’s painterly photographs unabashedly celebrate Miami’s pastel-tinged streetscape and the laid-back tendencies of Los Angeles. Upon closer inspection, however, things don’t quite add up: Shadows are misaligned, street signs look slightly askew, and palm trees are embedded within facades. Byrne’s works, which draw viewers in with the radiant color palettes and sun-soaked ambience of coastal cities, intentionally deceive. The Australian artist may have shaped his practice around the belief that film photography is the closest visual medium to the truth, but his latest photo series, called “Exit Vision” and displaying at Olsen Gruin gallery in New York City until Oct. 6, flips reality on its head. 

To realize “Exit Vision,” Byrne spent years capturing streetside scenes throughout Miami, Los Angeles, and Sydney with a traditional medium-format film camera. Through a rigorous post-production process, he stitches together architectural collages of wall, sky, and roads that hark back to the banal yet slightly surreal settings portrayed by the New Topographics movement. The end result, a series of geometric semi-fictional landscapes that combine multiple perspectives, feels more akin to Cubist paintings than traditional photography. “I’m looking to to merge the two modes of thought and explore the tension between them,” says Byrne, who notes that he wanted to break free from the limitations of conventional photography. “This process lets me push the medium.” Surface sat down with Byrne to find out how. 

Do Not Enter, 2019

You’ve said that film photography is the closest visual medium to the truth, but this photo series is intentionally deceptive. If not the truth, what do these images capture? 

With all abstraction, regardless of the medium, the goal is to convey a feeling. My work gives the viewer an idea of a place or a thing while incorporating misdirects that let them form their own impression of what they’re looking at and how it makes them feel.

In this series, the photographic truth lies in the surfaces at a granular level, not necessarily within the overall scene. My images also work within the parameters of abstraction in a few different ways. Sometimes I’m rearranging the pieces of a single place (Lings, 2019) and other times I’ll fabricate something from scratch (Pink Tile, 2019).

“Exit Vision” melds documentary photography and abstract composition. What’s your background working in each style?

I’ve worked extensively in more conventional documentary photography both in color and black and white. Looking back, though, I always had an eye for reduction—finding how I could say the most in an image with minimal information. I also experimented with pure abstraction in college when I practiced painting and drawing frequently.

71st Street Miami, 2019

How did you land on your signature photo-collaging technique?  

I worked out my collage technique over the past six or seven years, partly with the advent of smartphone cameras. iPhones let me take thousands more pictures than before, so my style evolved at an accelerated pace. Many of my technical breakthroughs were accidental, i.e. trying to bend and stretch the photographs in different computer programs. Once I learned some basic tools, I became absorbed in creating and doctoring landscapes as opposed to simply recording them. The final step was applying these new principles to my medium format film photography and finding the most effective way to make bigger prints.

Walk me through your creative process from concept to execution.

It usually starts with noticing an interesting intersection of elements (light, form, color, shadow, and so on) out in the world, and I’ll take a few pictures. Later, I review the pictures and decide which ones warrant the most attention. If needed, I’ll return to certain locations with my medium format cameras to get the higher-quality files needed to make the final works. 

For “Exit Vision,” especially Wall Detail #1 and Wall Detail #2, I drew my compositions by hand and built the final work with photographic material. Some images get assembled over days and others take months—it’s quite varied. Likewise, some feature six different locations, and some only one or two. It all depends on what the work calls for. Prints are the other half of the equation. It took years of trial and error working with different printers in Los Angeles to get my desired results.

Letter H, 2019

What attracts you to Miami, Los Angeles, and Sydney, and what scenic qualities do these cities share? 

Each city has beautiful light and an eclectic color palette, which is a great starting point. I’ve also lived in Sydney and Los Angeles for most of my life. Getting the necessary material, however, takes a surprisingly long time. I might get a great shot of a storefront, but only because I’ve driven past it 600 times at every possible time of day, so I know it like the back of my hand. 

I chose Miami to start exploring photographically based on what I’d seen and read. It was another sprawling coastal city with an array of cultural influences that seemed fun to explore. I was curious to see how it matched up to Los Angeles and how the East Coast felt compared to the West.

You cite the New Topographics movement as a key influence. How does your work continue that conversation? 

The New Topographics and Dusseldorf School were hugely influential. Seeing works by Hilla Becher, Stephen Shore, and Lewis Baltz all the way through to Andreas Gursky was pivotal in my own understanding and appreciating the urban landscape, especially how beauty and mystery often hides in plain sight. My work marries those photographic principles with that of modernist painting, pushing the works further into abstraction and embracing the image as malleable and not a fixed reality.

Peach Wall #2, 2018

Does playing with reality reflect your feelings about our post-truth political climate?

Perhaps by accident! I wasn’t consciously mirroring the present state of affairs, but maybe something subliminal was happening. Living in the United States up to (and through) the 2016 election has been a strange thing to behold—truth is no longer universally accepted. Different versions of reality are being pitched depending on which news feed you align with. Re-appropriating this rather terrifying concept into something creative and positive has been an interesting challenge. Part of the conversation I’m having is with photography itself. Although it was born as a medium for truth and documentary, it’s no longer the case with technology involved. My work, especially “Exit Visions,” inhabits that strange space.

“Exit Vision” will show at Olsen Gruin, located at 30 Orchard Street in New York, until Oct. 6.

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