Nature Is My Church – Visions of the Eastern Bay of Plenty

The official poster design I created to advertise the show.

The official poster design I created to advertise the show.


In December 2014 I moved to the Whakatane District to take on a role as graphic designer at Law Creative Group.

During my time here, I have been struck by the area’s natural beauty, from its sandy shores and islands, to its majestic sunrises and sunsets.

My solo show “Nature is My Church – Visions of the Eastern Bay of Plenty” is the culmination of my fascination with the raw presence of Nature here. I tell of my journey capturing this beauty through my lens and bringing that work to print..


The Installation

Images by Troy Baker Photography, Supplied Courtesy of Whakatane Museum and Arts.


An Introduction

‘Nature is My Church’ opened on Friday the 7th of September alongside the exhibition ‘Kutarere Sunrise’ by artist Lauren Lysaght to a crowd of approximately 50 people. During the opening, I gave a short introductory speech thanking all those who have helped me along the way. You can view this video here on my Facebook page.

Key Dates: Saturday, 8 September 2018 to Sunday, 25 November 2018

Location: Whakatāne Community Board Gallery - Te Kōputu a te whanga a Toi - Whakatāne Library and Exhibition Centre

"There's a road that winds down past the local lookout," says Whakatāne-based photographer James Stanbridge. "As you come around the corner, Moutohorā (Whale Island) is perfectly framed above the river and the town. You get this 'Ah, I've made it' Feeling." How many times, you might wonder, have I missed something magical on an oft-trodden path? It is this curious juxtaposition of familiarity and discovery that Stanbridge brings to the exhibition Nature is My Church: Visions of the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

The landscapes Stanbridge depicts are on one hand otherworldly, almost metaphysical, and yet on the other, they are comforting - like a choir singing or a waiata calling us. They could be situated far up a hillside, on a nearby beach, or in a place you never knew existed. No matter where he takes his camera, no matter how daring the process to capture these scenes might be, Stanbridge always offers up unexpected visions.
There is a frenetic sense of acquisition present in the sheer breadth of locations on show. "It's like collecting Pokémon or baseball cards," says Stanbridge. "I want to catch them all." But just as the drive to anthologise is accompanied by a need to share what has been collected, so it is with Nature is My Church. By providing audiences with detailed maps of each location, replete with Google pins and GPS coordinates, Stanbridge is, like an explorer of yesteryear, eager to bestow the treasure trove he has discovered on us all.”
– Whakatane Museum


The Work


The Journey

The seed for the show began in 2016, when Victoria Sinclair (Exhibition Coordinator) and I collaborated on a number of projects. Two exhibitions, for John Walsh and Star Gossage came through the Whakatane Museum galleries, and needed custom exhibition graphics.

This meeting of minds sparked a conversation about my own work, leading to a generous, if seemingly far off, offer to create my exhibit in the space.

Over the next eighteen months, Victoria and I continued the dialogue (over many coffees), and ‘Nature is My Church’ was born. It went through many different iterations, from projected slideshows, unframed prints before we finally settled on the final format.

Things really kicked into gear when we settled on prints, and my whole world pivoted on this decision: to print, or not to print, MYSELF.

A twist of fate sent me down the path of learning the photographic printing process myself. The printmaker I was due to meet in Auckland had forgotten to tell me he had gone to Malaysia on bereavement leave, and I was stood up in New Lynn before realising the meeting at his studio was not going to happen.

Epson SureColor SCP-800

Epson SureColor SCP-800


So I bought a printer, the best I could get for my budget and requirements. My research pointed me in the direction of the Epson SureColor SCP-800 – one of the most recommended A2 format printers on the market.

It has been an incredible and rewarding experience learning to print, and I have discovered a great deal. My practise has been enriched in ways I couldn’t have pictured. Funny how curveballs that seem like dilemmas can divine gifts.


Being a graphic designer by trade, I had the distinct advantage of being able to design all marketing collateral and exhibition graphics myself. This granted me an unprecedented level of control over the entire process from start to finish.


The Conversation

I sat with Jordan Davey-Emms to talk about light, nature, and inspiration for my show. The transcript of this interview is below:

Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I’m James Stanbridge. Currently I work down the road from the Museum at Law Creative, where I do graphic design and websites. I am from the Bay, and grew up in Ōpōtiki. Then I did secondary school in Tauranga. I’ve lived in a number of cities throughout New Zealand, but it’s funny how you come back to the area you grew up in, and reconnect.

How do you approach photography?

I’ve always enjoyed making images. I would say that the doing is really my favourite part of photography, rather than looking at what another person has done. Formally I got my start when I did a second-year paper in photography as part of my studies at Bay of Plenty Polytech in Tauranga, while getting a Diploma of Graphic Design. The paper was just an intro, but it forced me to buy a camera and figure out shooting. They brought in a professional photographer to tutor us, and that got me into photography. I got better gear, and shot more and more. 

Do you think about your photographs in terms of layout and colour balance, and things like that, or, do you see graphic design and photography as separate?

Sure! I think that with creative expression, all of your different experiences feed into it. Graphic design gives you a really clear understanding of composition and negative space, and also clarifying the message. If you make a website, and there’s 30 buttons to push, the user doesn’t know what’s important. That has really helped me to really ‘narrow in’ on what’s essential to the photo, and what’s not. My graphics training gives me a more critical eye for curating my photos. This exhibition for Whakatāne Museum, Nature is my Church: Visions of the Eastern Bay of Plenty, is a really tightly curated snippet of all the photos I’ve taken. The editing process is about being really ruthless about the shots that don’t really meet the grade. You learn to cull out the dud photos, and what are left with are the shining photos. 

And I guess that selection process comes out of the very act of taking a picture. You are looking through a lens, or through a screen.

I’m recognising something out in the world, and trying to distill that. 

Stormy West End

Stormy West End


The title of your exhibition, Nature is My Church contains a pretty big idea! Would you mind talking about the idea behind the title, or behind the exhibition?

I grew up in a religious family, in terms of values and ethics, and we did the whole church thing. You kind of don’t have much perspective on what is guarded or not when you are young. But I have definitely spent a lot of time in the religious context. It shapes who you are. So when you let go of that organized thing (I’m not saying there’s no God, I’m just saying sometimes you let go of the organized religious thing) and step into your own life a bit more. Sometimes you move away from the values of others, and are left hanging without a sense of community and connection that you get from something like church. How do you find that thing to refresh who you are? That makes things feel better for you and who you are? Where do you get that? So the idea is in search of the best church in the world. Going outside! Just being in nature and looking at the stars, or sitting on the beach when the sun sets, thing like that inspire me. My conclusion is: nature is my church! But not that it’s just mine. Nature is everyone’s church. 

But it feels very personal when you’re experiencing it.

Yes. And when you’re spending time with nature, sometimes it’s like, WOW! And other times, it’s nothing special. But when it inspires, in those moments of awe, you can let go of yourself. Especially when you can just be in it and just absorb it. Definitely you can get like an elated feeling. Your eyes vibrate from the beauty, almost.

Where does your camera fit in?

I like to capture those moments, it’s just that I don’t always have my camera on me. The sunset, I love the sunset, it rocks my world, and I want to experience it every day. I definitely think that ‘seeing the thing out there’ is what I’m bringing into my photography, but doing that when I am not taking pictures. A few times in the last year I have literally gone back to my catalogue and have seen huge gaps in my photo library. The best camera is always the one you have on you, but if you don’t have it on you a phone works. And that can result in beautiful images too  You can still make a composition, but you can’t print it a metre by a metre off your phone! The cleanliness and sharpness of the camera images versus phone images just can’t compare. Phones are amazing today, but it’s not the same. I’ve got to have my camera and lenses! 

So it’s a combination of chance and planning?

There is a lot of patience involved. It is both chance and patience. When the sun is setting, and I’m driving to a location, I can see the light going (and I might be driving too fast). When you get there, you grab the gear out of the boot and just race down to get the photo sometimes. The peak time of a sunset lasts like 5 minutes, where planning meets chance. And you’ve got to be ready for the shot! 

Is it about preserving each moment for yourself, or showing them to other people?

I think sharing the pictures is one of my favourite parts. And turning the images into prints (especially the nice ones that I’ve done myself) is a huge part of it as well. Today I’ve brought these prints along, I’ve got all of these images! I could show you 50 pictures on my phone, but it’s not the same. The exhibition at Whakatāne Museum is about sharing.

What about sharing on social media?

I kind of test the waters with the pictures on social media. I’ll throw them out there and see what sort of response they get, as a public gauge. That one  of Wairaka and the night sky just went ballistic online. It got shared 800 times, and had probably 100,000 people see it. Slightly crazy how far it can spread! The stunning photos need something in them that creates a heart-connection with the viewer – something that they’re fond of, or that perhaps reminds them of home. I saw the Wairaka image get really popular, and tried to work out why. How can I re-bottle that lightning? As I started to share it with the world, it started bringing me insights. When you show people things, you learn things as well. 

Toi In Space

Toi In Space


How do you go about selecting your locations?  

It’s like collecting Pokémon cards and baseball cards. I want to catch them all. But I try capture as many different settings and subjects as possible, so that there’s an eclectic mix of photos. I find myself drawn to the same themes and concepts again and again. Repeating combinations, perhaps the same scene but at a different time. There are also changes in what I do in-camera. The picture you’re taking is a collaborative experience, working in harmony with the live environment. Everything needs to come together, and all the factors have to be right: the ideal amount of humidity, so that the light catches the sun, or it’s really cold and the stars look really crisp. I’ve got to be at the spot, with my gear, as the conditions cooperate. It’s like a little tango. 

What are some of the themes that have come back in your work?

A big example would be landmarks. And also trying to get Moutuhora or Whale Island, for instance, by taking pictures from all around the coast. Trying to get multiple things into a photo and see what sort of new combinations of those elements I can work out. I moved to Ōhope beach in December last year, and there was a massive storm. There was this tree, the shape of a whole tree washed up on the beach. Now it’s almost August, and that tree is still sitting there. Every couple of weeks there’s a big storm and big surf, and it moves the whole tree to a different angle or a different spot, and it’s such a dynamic shape. I’ve taken around 67 photos of it in its different locations and times of the day. It’s this thing that continues to fascinate me. It’s a feature of the beach at the moment — a semi-permanent fixture. 

The other thing is nature. It’s hard to have fun in this town unless you engage with nature. It’s not a vibrant city, like other places I’ve lived. There aren’t cool jazz concerts at the pub on a Saturday afternoon. There’s not a lot of diverse entertainment here. So you’ve got to do your own thing, and that has forced me to get out there, to go to the beach, walk up the hill, visit the landscapes. 

Tell us about the exhibition at Whakatāne Museum. 

Every image in the show is linked to a reference point on a map that will also be installed in the gallery space. I’m going to try to select my images from locations that are relatively close to central Whakatāne, to really keep it about our district and connect with the people and places around us. Each picture is going to have a little flag above it, and there will also be a label under each picture. Viewers can see where each photograph was taken, and maybe visit the location. On the labels, there will the time of day each picture was taken, the exact coordinates of the place, and the key camera settings [F stop, aperture, ISO]. It’s full transparency for the viewer. I'm sharing the details of each shot. Viewers might be able to see these places in a new way, and collect a virtual postcard for themselves. It’s not like no one else will have gone to these spots. They’re all publicly available – you just walk around the corner in the Eastern Bay of Plenty and find them.   

What has been the highlight of working on the exhibition for you?

I am quite grateful for getting the opportunity to work with the Whakatāne Museum staff here. I plan and print the exhibition myself, but it’s nice to be working with an institution, rather than the do-it-yourself approach. There’s a more support, ideas, and opportunities to extend the exhibition beyond the original notion. And the gallery space is dedicated to showing art, and visited by people who love art and photography! So there are also amenities that you don’t normally have, like excellent lighting, beautiful gallery spaces, and promotion and audience development. I feel like the universe as helped some things happen this year. 

Do you have a final thought before our community visits your exhibition?

The tagline I use, Visions of the Eastern Bay of Plenty, feeds into the religious aspect of the title. The title is intended to be grippy, but not offensive! There’s nothing really controversial about the pictures, and they are all easy o look at and study. I actually enjoy some of the weirder more interesting art that people make — art designed to shake conservative views. Personally, that’s my favourite stuff! I really appreciate when artists just do their own thing, away from other people’s expectations. I have my own art that is a bit like that, and some of my other exhibitions have explored the provocative and controversial. Nature is My Church is just about going to wonderful and inspiring places and sharing those moments with my community. 

Conversation retrieved from Whakatane Museum and Arts Mailchimp 10/12/2018. View original post here.


The Opening

Images by John Morin, supplied courtesy of Whakatane Museum and Arts.