Artist George Byrne on his favourite things to do in Los Angeles
When the Australian-born, Los Angeles-based photographer George Byrne agrees to show me his favourite spots on the hip Eastside of town, I have no idea that one of them will be the inside of his royal-blue Chevy truck. But here we are, buckling our seatbelts, as the sun beams down.
“Driving is a big part of the LA way of life,” he smiles. “Your car is the spare room to your house, a private little pod. I find it relaxing. It’s the one thing I miss when I go to other cities.”
The shiny new wheels hold a greater significance for Byrne, 42, who’s lived in LA for nearly a decade – they transport him where he needs to go as a photographic artist of urban landscapes. “I’ve always got my camera in the back of the truck,” he explains. “Sometimes I’ll be driving to work and I’ll jump out to take photos.”
A “Beck meets Ryan Adams” singer-songwriter when he left Sydney, he was casually shooting a roll of film every couple of months “just because I like to shoot”, he shrugs. “There wasn’t a goal. But when I got to LA in 2010 I wanted to take more photos.”
He now has more than 117,000 Instagram followers (@george_byrne) and has put on solo exhibitions of his eye-catching architectural portraits in LA, New York, Oslo, Vancouver, Toronto and Sydney.
“When I moved to LA it felt like a vast choose-your-own-adventure town,” recalls Byrne, who bears more than a passing resemblance to his Hollywood actress sister, Bridesmaids star, Rose. “Everyone I’ve met moved here to throw something against the wall to see if it would stick. There’s a flow of entrepreneurial activity in every pocket and a supportive vibe. There’s no judgement as to what you want to have a swing at.”
Explore urban streetscapes and the famous Griffith Park
While the Eastside isn’t a stronghold for Australian expats, who tend to favour being by the ocean in Venice or Santa Monica, it’s easy to see what the draw was for Byrne, whose exhibition New Order explored lesser-known parts of the city.
Initially starting out in Echo Park and Silver Lake before settling in Los Feliz, he recently moved with his girlfriend (New Zealand actress Rose McIver) to nearby Eagle Rock.
“You have a bit of old and a bit of new and it’s still a little rough around the edges but there is a mysteriously beautiful emptiness to LA urban street life that I concentrate on a lot in my pictures,” he says. “Its raw aesthetics are all washed-out pastel planes, rundown low-rise ’80s architecture; it’s playful and post-apocalyptic."
As we drive into Silver Lake, the eastern edge of the Santa Monica mountains cast a magnificent shadow behind us. A pull for locals and tourists alike, the iconic Griffith Park – five times the size of New York’s Central Park – is not only a source of creative inspiration for Byrne, but a way of keeping fit, California style.
“I’ve done the same jog route for eight years,” he says. “There’s nowhere like it. Hampstead Heath in London and Central Park in New York feel more curated whereas here, once you get up that hill, you’re on the edge of the city, marching off into the bush.”
Visit Aussie-owned cafés, galleries and clothing stores
A statuesque 1.93m in a pale grey shirt from Aussie label Bassike, dark blue jeans and Blundstone boots, Byrne takes me to the menswear shop and stockist of his favourite Australian brands, Hemingway and Sons. Owned by Toby Burke Hemingway, the store was named not after the famous novelist, but after the owner’s great-great-grandfather Edward Hemingway, who opened a small Melbourne barber shop in 1888.
“My first exhibition of LA work was in Toby’s first shop,” recalls Byrne fondly. “He’s a musician as well and we used to play together in Australia. We’ve always supported each other; he moved to LA a year or two before I did and helped me get my bearings.
“There’s a unique bond you have with fellow Australians living overseas. If zero is not knowing someone and 10 is knowing them, you start at three straight away.”
On route to Byrne’s studio in the multi-disciplinary arts facility Wilhardt & Naud, we pop into Tartine Bianco in the Arts District’s hottest new culinary complex, The Manufactory. Lattes are ordered through the Ice Cream + Coffee window, a recent discovery for Byrne, who usually gets his caffeine fix from Aussie-owned Little Ripper in Glassell Park.
He loves the sandwiches at the nearby Proof Bakery but often makes avocado toast at home. “All the clichés,” he laughs. What’s his secret? “Vegemite, of course. And I use Dave’s Killer Bread which is famous in LA for being made by an ex-convict.”
Byrne’s studio in a renovated warehouse is an accumulation of his prints, frames and photographic equipment but feels light and spacious. He enjoys working in a building with fellow artists, although they often pass like ships in the night. “We don’t have a communal space where we can hang,” he sighs. “I’d love to run a cafe, although I can imagine that by your 10,000th avocado toast you might hit a wall!”
We finish up at The Broad museum, which Byrne has got into the habit of visiting every few months since it opened in 2015. “I remember driving past and seeing it being built,” he recalls. “I like the light, the architecture is fantastic and it’s an incredibly easy gallery to navigate.”
Enjoy the bars and nightlife
The only downside to Byrne’s burgeoning career is how hard it is to switch off. “I’m constantly seeing pictures and the seeds of something everywhere I look,” he says. But while he may not get a lot of downtime, he’s still able to reel off a list of recommendations of where to go for fun.
“I like the pepper steak at Cafe Stella and El Condor is a great example of contemporary Mexican food but with really good DJs – it’s like a party every time you go. I also like Ye Rustic Inn, a dive bar in Los Feliz. Whatever time of the day, it’s like 10.30pm. Time just evaporates in there.”
What’s his best tip for a first-timer to LA? “You’re not going to understand the city in a short amount of time – accept it’s a little weird and spread out,” he says.
“People think, ‘Why would I go to LA? There’s no Opera House or Eiffel Tower or Big Ben…’ There’s no refined thing, but it’s so much more. It’s the space, the light, the attitude and the mind-boggling cultural diversity. All these things make it a place I’m happy to call home.”
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