Maelstrom: The Wild Power and Mystery of Luke Shadbolt
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Maelstrom - The Wild Power and Mystery of Luke Shadbolt’s Latest Ocean Series
That feeling you get when you’re in the clouds of a high rise balcony and look down at the street below, the potential energy in your gut from imagining toppling over the side. Or that feeling you get when you stand on the edge of a train platform and an express train steams past… the brutal power, the capability of life turned to death in a fraction of a second. It hits you deep in your stomach, hard. That’s the feeling of Maelstrom, the latest photo series from Australian photographer Luke Shadbolt.
You might remember his name from the The Infinity Wall, a photo series of timeless surrealism at Pipeline, shot from underwater in incredible light. Or perhaps his Surfing Australia Surf Photo of The Year, a giant plume of whitewater being saluted from the water by a bodyboarder, both hands in the air as if to say, “Praise thee, mother ocean!” Or any other number of incredible cover photos in the commercial photog’s portfolio. But this, this latest series, is arguably the best thing he’s achieved with a camera. It’s called Maelstrom.
SW: Let’s talk about this Maelstrom series. Was it all shot in the one area?
LS: Yeah, I can’t mention anything about where it was shot, but it’s all shot in the one location and it was basically the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen in the ocean. Ever. I’d seen some shots of the area on the Internet but had no idea where in the world it was, then when I was on holidays with my girlfriend last year we went on a hike and saw all this crazy activity. I was like, “Wow, okay, this is where all that was shot.” I planned to come back a year later and spend a month there and this was the result. There were two days where it was just stupid, stupidly huge swells.
More than anything I just want to understand what it feels like to shoot this in person. To me, this is like ocean energy at its most pure.
Yeah, exactly. I mean the whole idea behind it is this duality of creation and destruction in the one act. That’s what I was trying to focus on; keeping it based on the act rather than the surroundings. Trying to keep it clean and pure because it is so chaotic already. So just focusing on the power, the swell, the waves, and the outcome of it all meeting it’s end point on the coastline.
What was the energy of this swell particularly like, was it something that you could feel?
Hiking out to that area, you can’t see the waves as you’re walking but you could feel them shaking the ground. You would hear them and then you would feel them a second later, which was pretty crazy. After trying to chase perfection for about five years and then seeing this sort of activity, it was the wildest stuff I’d ever witnessed and was instantly more interesting to me, that whole chaotic... chaotic beauty I guess.
Yeah, I think you’ve really captured the feeling of the power in these waves.
To be honest, I disagree. Actually being there and witnessing it, you can’t do it justice. I mean, that was my intention, to try and capture that power and beauty, but I don’t think you could be successful with that compared to actually witnessing it in person.
How big… because there’s no context in the photos, how big are these white water plumes?
They’re like 100 foot probably. The waves themselves were anywhere from ten-to-20 foot and you look at some of the shots and you can see the wave is a tenth of how high the wash is actually going. It sounds ridiculous, especially because there’s no sense of scale, but I’d be pretty confident in saying that’s 100 foot of wash.
How close are you to the ocean when you’re shooting these?
Well, you can get close in certain parts but because it’s so big and wild it’s pretty sketchy. At one point I nearly got washed off the beach by this crazy surge. That’s part of the reason that you can’t really get any perspective because to put someone in a scene... it’d basically be committing them to getting swept out to sea and/or torn apart. And to try and utilise the surrounding area, everything is just so big that you still don’t get any sense of scale.
Run me through the two major days of shooting.
The first time, I didn’t realise it was going to be as good. I kind of planned to hike in, shoot in the morning, come back and have lunch, and then head back out in the afternoon. But it was just too good to leave so I was under-prepared and pretty starving that day. When I knew it was going to be good I’d get up maybe an hour before sunrise and hike in the dark and post up all day. I’d be up at about 5.30 in the morning, and then sunset wasn’t until probably 6.30, so yeah it’s a good 13 hour day, and then moving around all day, and having to hike in and out as well, yeah, they were long days.
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And a lot of data.
That’s the other thing, the top ten shots that I ended up with, it was a real struggle to get it down to that many. I mean there’s another 300 that I like, but that’s just too many. I was there for a month and I couldn’t even tell you how many photos I shot in total, but it took me about a month to get through them all and whittle it down to a respectable number. It’s more like nature photography in that sense. Obviously, it is nature, but the fact that you’re sitting there waiting for the action to happen and you can’t really predict what anything is going to do.
There are thousands of people in the world who are dedicated to constantly shooting the ocean, how hard is it to do something new? I’ve looked at a million photos of big sprays and plumes and wedges, but I look at these and they feel new. Is it as simple as seeing something and then waiting a whole year to come back and dedicate a whole month to shooting it? Does it take that much planning and patience?
There’s a lot of thought and effort because everyone’s doing it. It’s just a matter of trying to come up with an idea that you haven’t seen before, which is actually really quite hard (laughs). And so when I was planning this, I had seen similar stuff online but I thought I’d do it quite differently. Originally I’d planned to shoot it all from water because I’d never seen anyone shoot from water along this area, but it was just not possible (laughs).
No, that looks way too dangerous. That looks like death.
Well, I did do it a couple of times, and it was pretty scary. The results were interesting enough but then when these two crazy huge swells came through, that just blew everything else that I’d shot out of the water...
“Literally.” Ha, I didn’t want to say it. So, that kind of reshaped the idea that I had, but at the same time I knew a couple of guys had shot there before, but not quite to the style that I was aiming for. And then I’d never seen anything quite that big from there as well. The two swells that I ended up witnessing were some of the biggest in living memory, so to be able to do something similar isn’t as easy as just going there and doing it.
They do remind me a bit of SA Rips stuff, maybe just in the dedication to a powerful coastline.
Yeah for sure. A lot of his stuff is inspirational for me being that it was focusing on craziness rather than perfection, his work is very inspiring.
I know with your Infinity Wall series (the cover shot of Surfing World issue 360) you had the idea and knew that on the right conditions you’d be able to go out there and construct the images, the same way you approached this Maelstrom series. So, do you have other ideas like these that you’re sitting and waiting on right now?
Yeah, I have actually, and it’s kind of annoying because there’s one that I’ve spoken about shooting for Surfing World for almost a year but I just haven’t been able to get it done yet. And that’s what keeps it interesting for shooting in the water or of surfing, because it’s not as easy as saying, “Alright I’m going to go here and shoot it.” You’re at the whim of the elements, there’s other variables you’ve got to try and line up... but yeah there’s more in the tank.
Is this kind of photography a release for you, because your working life is commercial work, right? Like commercial photography and creative direction?
Yeah, pretty much it is now. Surfing has always been more of a release, it was never paying the bills, now it’s more that I like to have an idea and try and see that idea through from start to finish, rather than going out and shooting every swell.
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Well, this isn’t even surfing anymore. You’ve completely moved away from that.
Yeah, and some of the other concepts that I have are moving completely away from the ocean as well. It’s all revolving around nature still, but I can’t see anything ocean related being crazier than this, I’m just always looking for a new challenge.
What’s your relationship with photography like now? Does it feel like work?
I’m not the sort of person that has a camera on me at all times and that, you know, is trying to capture a street scene as it happens or anything like that. I prefer to have an idea, figure out how to produce that idea and then go out and do it. It’s not just about photography, it’s more about the idea for me.
It sounds like more of a “concept art” approach to photography. You’re certainly not a documentary photographer.
No, no. It’s more photography is the medium that works for me at the moment. And I can’t see myself changing, I’m not going to turn into a painter or anything like that, but going from the idea stage, I know how to use photography to create an end result.
Did it change, did you used to be more of a documentary-type photographer?
Yeah definitely. When I first started I was chasing every swell, and shooting everything, and trying to learn as much as possible but then, it’s not that I’m bored with photography, but I like to be able to mix things up so that I don’t get bored, and I think now that’s sort of where I’ve gotten to. I’ve exhausted that style of photography and now it is just a medium for me, and I’m still learning, obviously, that’s the beauty of it, you’re always learning with photography, just like with anything in the creative fields...
Yeah, with any sort of medium in art I guess, you’re constantly evolving.
Yeah, as soon as you stop evolving and get complacent, that’s when you kind of just lose your effect.
Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. And that will do it I reckon. Thanks for your time Shaddy, and congratulations on Maelstrom. Can’t wait to see what you do next.
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