Luke Shadbolt is a photographer from Australia who aims to explore the most dangerous and chaotic side of the ocean. Having vast experience in shooting water sports, he applies his knowledge of the elements in an artistic way to make images that astound, frighten and fascinate. After the presentation of his new series at Photo London, we talked with Luke about his creative background, ideas behind his fine art projects and his approach to the ocean, a model with character.
How did you become a photographer?
When I was a kid, I was really into drawing and painting. I was around 10 years old when surfing took over though, and spent the next 10 years pretty singularly focused on that. However, after school I got back into visual arts and studied a degree in Visual Communications with the aim to work in graphic design. I started including photographic elements in my work, and got more involved in photography from there. I then took on a role as the art-director for a surfing magazine, which got me a lot more opportunities to shoot in the ocean which I was very passionate about. That was how I got into photography really. I starting shooting more and doing less design work and moved into more commercial photography. Then in the last two years I started exploring the fine art side. I still do some art direction which I still very much enjoy. I feel fortunate to be able to work across multiple disciplines, the variety keeps it interesting and they complement each other.
What made you start doing fine art projects?
It was just a progression. One of the projects I did with the surfing magazine was shooting a book. I traveled about 9 months of the year for it and also helped to produce a film for the project. After a year of last minute trips and chasing perfect waves I felt a bit burnt out. At the same time I felt that I was doing all this work not for myself, but for someone else. I wanted to do something out of my own interest, and that’s my first project titled Maelstrom originated. I tried to find the craziest, most chaotic instances of the ocean I could find, with an emphasis on what creates those chaotic movements. When I approach a new project, I like to start with an idea and see where it ends up through the process of creating it. Over the course of taking photos and editing I uncover the meaning behind the idea. It might seem sort of like reverse engineering, but for me it is all about the process, to look at the events and see what actually happened and understand why. Maelstrom was the first try for me, and it was a very steep learning curve. I was very fortunate to start working with the Michael Reid Gallery here in Australia off the back of that series. After showing my first exhibition with them last year as a part of the Head On Photo Festival in Sydney, they ended up representing me as an artist, which is how I ended up at Photo London with my second series Acquiesce The Front.
What was the process behind shooting Maelstrom?
I have been shooting surfing over the course of the last 6-7 years. Through my travels I picked up certain spots which, depending on conditions and time of year, might create something interesting in terms of the sort of chaotic movements I was looking for. I’d go to these very remote locations and spend all day watching and trying to anticipate the waves. Spending 12 hours a day in nature was really awesome experience.
Can you name the spots you shot for the series?
I actually can’t reveal where it was shot. I made an agreement with the locals that I wouldn’t reveal locations, just to keep the peace. Plus, it creates an element of mystery around the project.
What is your experience in surfing? Are you a professional surfer?
Ha, no not at all. I grew up bodyboarding and only I started surfing around the same time that I began taking photos. Today I’m surfing mostly, occasionally bodyboarding depending on conditions, but definitely the best way for me to start my day is going for a swim in the ocean. There was a time for 5 years that I was shooting surfing, that I would be chasing every swell around Australia, but now I’m ready for new challenges. I’d much prefer to actually surf than shoot most of the time. I do still shoot surfing occasionally, but mostly when I have a new idea that I want to try it out, or if there’s a spot I haven’t shot before, or a group of riders. It’s more specific. But I’ve been involved in the ocean since I was 5 years old, it’ll always be a huge part of my life.
Are you sharing your creativity between commercial and artistic projects? How does it work for you?
I still have to pay the bills, which the commercial side obviously helps with. It is really enjoyable as well though, I like the challenge of working out ideas that will be understood by the audience and the client, it’s a different sort of challenge than what I face when I’m working for myself. With my art practice it’s a slower process, more self-reflective. It’s like one is looking inside, the other is looking outward. I really enjoy both of them though.
Getting back to your creative path, was there anyone who influenced you?
I had a great mentor in Phil Gallagher, a brilliant surf photographer who probably isn’t as well-known as he should be. He pioneered many surf spots around remote areas of Australia. He was actually the editor at the surf magazine I was art director for, I learned a lot from him. This is the sort of relationship that I recommend in any industry. Find someone you respect and learn as much as you can from them. We still sometimes work on some projects together, but we’re also good friends still.
As far as surf photography, I also was really influenced by Dustin Humphrey. He doesn’t shoot that much these days, but he was amazing in early 2000s. He’s a great example of the idea being at the strength of the image, always trying something different.
Have you ever taken risks to shoot something extraordinary?
Well, my initial idea for Maelstrom was that I wanted to shoot from the water in these sorts of conditions, and I nearly drowned myself a few times. That was only on the smaller days. I luckily had a friend who I talked into coming along with me, who acted as my spotter, which definitely helped alleviate any concerns my fiance had with me heading off to shoot these waves. Taking risks is essential. Calculated risks though, preparation is essential.
How do you usually choose destinations? Do you like planning everything carefully when you travel for photography?
It is very often last minute planning. What’s really important is the understanding of the location. Most of the timing depend on the elements, so you can’t plan everything out in detail. I plan as much as I can, but a lot of the time I just spend extended periods in certain locations to make sure I have captured what I aim to achieve. I’ll often go back to certain locations several times before I’m happy with the output.
What is coming next, after Maelstrom?
I just launched a new photo series Acquiesce the Front, which was presented at Photo London. With Maelstrom I was looking for the chaotic movements of nature and what’s behind them, but I was really focusing on the final big impact. I tried to make the new series textural and a little bit more abstract, more puzzling, showing the moments in betweens the waves as well. Like the situation on a global scale with all the worries about Brexit, Trump coming to power in US etc. I realise that’s a very liberal viewpoint, but everyone has worries which is my main point. I think that you can apply the aesthetic of the storm to what is happening socially, and in turn subjectively. The storms come and go but you can learn from them rather than let them envelope you, and you then apply that learning to the future.
I’m planning to exhibit Acquiesce the Front in November at the Michael Reid Gallery in Sydney, Australia this year. There are also a couple of projects that I’m still brainstorming. I want to incorporate a technological element into what I do. One half of me is attached to the world of nature, but the other half is bound to the technological world. I’m trying to explore how to make these two work together. I think that the future in general is going to be about the harmony of these two things. And we have to try to find this harmony, because advancements are not slowing down. That’s the direction, and there are several different ways I can approach that. I’m going to start with that broad idea, and I’ll see where it goes.
What would be your advice to photographers who want to shoot waves?
Experience with the ocean will always help, so just spending time in and around waves is a start. Be careful, that’s what I’d advise. No matter how familiar you get with the ocean – nature will always throw something unexpected at you. Also, remember that photography is a tool, a medium. It’s a means to realise an idea. You shouldn’t try to copy anyone or be the next whoever. Take inspiration of course. But first, understand why you want to shoot waves, and after that go for it.
To see more work by Luke, visit his website: