Lens Guru Luke Shadbolt On Surfing & Shooting in Trumpland, USA

Photo: Luke Shadbolt

Photo: Luke Shadbolt

With the advent of the digital SLR and Instagram soon after, the world now has absolutely no shortage of pretty-friggin-good surf photographers. Despite this, it’s actually not all that often that these ocean-obsessed image makers see their work published beyond the likes of surfing or bodyboarding’s own publications. So when Luke Shadbolt’s photographs of the ocean appeared in TIME magazine a few years ago, it surely marked the point at which this Central Coast native had graduated from surf photog to master lensman. 

Kicking off his visual career with a degree in communications before turning pro graphic designer, Shadbolt has since migrated into a full-time photo and creative director role. On a seemingly constant upward trajectory, the powerhouse recently packed his bags and headed for more conservative (just) pastures - The United States of America. 

Giving up a land abounding with nature’s gifts for the land of opportunity, Shaddy’s move was surely pragmatic, most likely preconceived and most definitely pre-emptive of a further exploding career in the visual arts. We were curious as to how this lensman balanced the equation of opportunity vs Trumpian obscurity when considering this move, so thought we would question the Shad himself as to what’s it like surfing and living in the US of A, along with his plans for the future (beyond the immediate goal of visiting the nearest Starbucks). 

MM: When and where did you grow up and how did you come to find photography?
Luke Shadbolt: I feel like anyone born in the 80s is part of the last generation to experience life before everything started transitioning to being fully digitised. I also grew up Terrigal, which is a pretty small town with lots of open space and nature, but still in relative proximity to the big bright lights of Sydney. So there was a pretty great balance of old and new, town and country going on in my life. I’ve been playing around with cameras since high school, and I studied a bachelor of visual communication at uni which had certain photography related courses, but overall I’m largely self-taught. After working as a graphic designer for a few years I had an opportunity to become the art director of Le Boogie bodyboarding magazine and it was around the same time that I’d gotten myself a DSLR and housing, so that was when I started taking photography more seriously. I think originally, the appeal of photography over other mediums was that it seemed so instant. I had a much shorter attention span back then, but funnily enough as I came to learn, photography is anything but instant.

What sort of influence did the ocean have on this?
Bodyboarding, surfing and the ocean in general was always my largest motivation for getting into photography. Growing up bodyboarding gave me the tools to be comfortable swimming around in the ocean with the equivalent of a couple of expensive weights strapped to my arm. That understanding of wind, tides, swell and more is definitely the most essential aspect of surf photography. Being amongst nature and having an appreciation for what it provides both as a life giving force and a form of escapism has helped shape how I see the world.

Your images wound up in Time magazine a few years back. Why do you think wave and ocean photography appeals to such a large audience?
There would have to be a subconscious link to the ocean on a fundamental human level, being that we evolved from there millions of years ago and are largely made up of water. I can really only speak for my own interest in ocean images, though; everything I shoot, I’m doing for myself and what I most enjoy is the experience of being out in the elements, witnessing these incredible events and attempting to capture a piece of that experience. It never does the actual event justice, but you come away with a literal image of the memory of the experience which is pretty incredible. 

Make America Break Again. Photo: Luke Shadbolt

Make America Break Again. Photo: Luke Shadbolt

You recently made the move to the Big Apple. What sparked the change?
Nicole [Warne, fashion designer and influencer] and I have been aiming to move to NYC for a few years. We finally made it here a couple of months ago. I always liked the idea of living overseas, and we wanted to do it before we started a family. She works in fashion, so a lot of her clients are either from here or Europe; and for me, being based here just opens up a lot more opportunity for reaching a larger audience, and provides opportunities to work with new locations that are relatively inaccessible from Australia. Being based in a city for the first time in my life, I wasn’t sure how I would take to it, but I’m loving it so far. The contrast to what I have at home is such an inspiration.

Can you surf in NYC?
I actually had my first surf over here a couple of days ago. It was maybe the most expensive surf of my life! I have a friend here who recommended I head down to New Jersey, so I hired a car and myself and a mate went down for an afternoon session. It was actually super fun – not that cold and just a great reminder of what being in the ocean does for you. I’m actually really excited to see some pumping days during winter when there’s snow on the beach. I just have to find a more cost-effective solution to getting to the beach., But yes definitely looking forward to exploring all the coastlines of the US, South America and Europe from here. There’s so many options.

What’s the political climate like in NYC?
I mean, to say that it’s an interesting time in American politics is putting it mildly. The great thing about New York is that it's largely a Democratic state, so Trump isn’t all that popular here. It did cross our mind that we were moving to the US in a pretty volatile time, but what can you do?

Back to photography: your work seems to span quite a few sub-disciplines at the moment. How important is diversity to succeeding nowadays? 
Diversity is essential for learning. I love to try new things, and I’m always looking to cross-reference what I’ve learnt in one industry and apply it to another.  I think having come from a design background, I was accustomed to working to a brief and not necessarily letting style get in the way of the story behind an image. I think this approach has made it harder for me to cultivate a personal style, but also in a sense I’ve only recently started shooting for myself so I’m only now learning what that personal style is. 

What’s your end-game with photography? Are you going to wind up back on the Central Coast some day? 
At the moment I am still very much loving photography as a medium, but I’m also looking to expand into other mediums. I think eventually I’d love to raise a family back on the Central Coast. In a perfect world, I’d have a place there, maybe one in New York, one in Hawaii, one somewhere in Europe. Very wishful thinking, but I’m an optimist, and I do believe in what you put out into the world is what you get back in kind, so we’ll see how it all pans out.

Any tips for up-and-coming photographers? 
Find yourself a mentor. When I was working on Le Boogie with Phil Gallagher, he was an endless source of inspiration and encouragement. He now works as the go-to guy at Aquatech underwater housings in Australia, and I’m sure he is playing that mentor role in some capacity to hundreds of photographers around Australia and the globe.

Photo: Luke Shadbolt

Photo: Luke Shadbolt

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