The beautiful chaos of photographer Luke Shadbolt

"Perfection is great, but chaos is more interesting."
The colours from below © Luke Shadbolt
By Oliver Pelling

In the world of photography, it's increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd. Everyone has an iPhone and an internet connection which means everyone has access to an audience before they've even clicked the shutter. The internet is awash with photography from all corners of the globe and from the lenses of shooters blessed with varying degrees of originality.

This proliferation of photographers is great, but unless you take a deep dive into the archives of every single photographer you come across, it can make it difficult to tell them apart.

Luckily, there are still photographers out there who have a style all their own. And Australian professional shooter Luke Shadbolt - whose background is firmly rooted in surf photograhy - is one such example.

Having recently caused a stir with his mindblowing 'Maelstrom 2016' series, we caught up with Luke to learn more about his approach to maintaining a unique perspective.

Surfing, in sepia © Luke Shadbolt

Luke, tell us a bit about where you're from and what you do.

I’m 31, I’m from North Avoca, about an hour north of Sydney, and I’m a photographer and creative director. From a commercial perspective, I guess what I do could be seen as creative problem solving. From a personal perspective it’s not dissimilar, but I’m giving myself the brief and the deadline is a lot more flexible.

You're no stranger to surf photography, but you've recently had a bit of attention for your 'Maelstrom 2016' series. What was the inspiration behind that particular set of photographs?

After chasing perfection for the last five years or so, I was starting to become a little bit desensitised to it and realised that I was far more interested in chaotic aspects of the ocean. I guess it actually stemmed from back when I first started shooting surfing and bodyboarding, when what got me excited was shooting fisheye in as crazy waves as I could find. Perfect waves are great, but chaos is more interesting. At least it is for me right now anyway.

One from Shadbolt's incredible 'Maelstrom' series © Luke Shadbolt

So Maelstrom came about as a decided turn to try and find the most violent and wild looking wave activity I could find. The concept behind the series is of contradiction and balance, creation and destruction in a single act. Ying and yang. Maybe chaos is more interesting because it is fleeting, or maybe it is more interesting to me right now because I’m trying to find that balance. Then by analysing the cycles that cause these chaotic events, the idea is to draw a link from that back to humanities unending quest to control nature. Physical nature and human nature and the relationship between them. The lack of understanding and respect we have for our surroundings and the naivety behind that.

Is there anywhere people can go to see the photos in the flesh, as it were?

The series is currently showing at the Michael Reid Gallery in Sydney until the 28th of May. There are plans to exhibit it internationally in the works, but just feeling out the best fit at the moment.

Just chilling © Luke Shadbolt

What is the bulk of your photography work made up of - commercial? Travel? Bit of a mixture?

I’d say about 25% is personal work, 25% is commercial jobs, 25% travel (still commercial) and the last 25% is surfing or bodyboarding. It’s good to be able to work across a few different genres and apply the different techniques to each.

I noticed on your website you have a few series dedicated to various parts of Australia and New Zealand. Do you have a bit of a soft spot for this part of the world, and the kind of landscapes it affords you as a photographer?

Australia definitely, it’s where I call home. I’ve been road tripping around this place for as long as I can remember. I’ve seen a good portion of the coastline, but there is a lot of it I still haven’t seen; it’s pretty crazy to be over 30 and have never made it out to Uluru. There are a lot of places on the to do list still.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco © Luke Shadbolt

New Zealand is a new love. I first travelled there in 2013, but I’ve been back several times since. I’m actually heading there tomorrow! It’s still a bit of a hidden oasis for Australians considering that it’s only a three-hour flight from Sydney. The landscapes are breathtaking; I would highly recommend the area around Queenstown and Lake Wanaka, as well as Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. Great waves over there too, if you know where to look.

Oceanscape © Luke Shadbolt

How do you approach an assignment to help ensure you come back with something that only Luke Shadbolt could have shot?

Hmm, I’m not sure? Interesting question. I was actually wondering about the origins of creativity the other day; is it a culmination of a lifetime of past experiences and one’s ability to draw from all of that and apply it to a concept? Is it something that is closer to divine creation? A combination of both? How would a robot with the ability to record and store every single life experience into an archive of memories compare to a human? Would a robot be capable of doing that or is the human brain much more powerful than we give it credit for? Are humans just an organic equivalent to what our collective understanding of a robot is?

What do you, personally, get out of photography? Is it just a job these days, or do you still get a kick out of a great capture?

Photography is more of a medium than anything, it’s always been about the idea for me; I’m not the sort of person who will always have a camera in hand trying to document everything.

Surf drama in black and white © Luke Shadbolt

I did go through that stage though, when I first started shooting photos. That is definitely the best way to learn, any craft for that matter.

But putting work out there has always been very personal to me; it takes a lot of confidence to put something out into the world and stand behind it. I’m fortunate in that I don’t really look at what I do as a job though, if I retired tomorrow I would probably still be doing the exact same thing.

An ocean of sand © Luke Shadbolt

What's your photography story - how did you first get into it, and how did you turn it into a career?

I studied visual communication at uni and worked as a designer for a few years, but always wanted to try my hand at surf photography. Once I had managed to save enough for a DSLR setup and water housing, around the same time I started working as an art director for a bodyboarding magazine (Le Boogie). Phil Gallagher was the man behind the magazine, who also happened to be one of the better surf photographers in Australia and I learnt a tonne from him over the course of working there.

After probably two or three years, I started getting work published consistently, was still working as the art director of Le Boogie and was freelancing for a bunch of other clients at the same time. My girlfriend then started an online clothing store which was a huge success.

She then started a blog which became one of the most popular in Australia and then internationally ( and I would collaborate with her on a range of work, from shooting a lot of her photos to directing and producing content for her and other clients through social media. That opened up new opportunities in different industries, which brings me to where I am now.

Underwater angles © Luke Shadbolt

What advice do you have for anyone else hoping to try and turn a penny for their photographs?

I feel like photography as a career comes as more of a package nowadays. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but looking at it from a majority perspective, you can’t just be a photographer, you have to have another set of complementary skills that you can leverage off.

The other thing is don’t give anything away. Value your work, understand the time, effort, equipment and above all, the creative thought that went into you creating an image and realise that there is a worth to that beyond a social media shout out or a free t-shirt.

Explore more of Luke's work on his website, be drip-fed his stunning images on Facebook, hit him up on Instagram and see his 'Maelstrom' exhibition in real life at Sydney's Michael Reid Gallery until 28 May 2016.

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