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Bay Dreams

1 December 2021

Photographer James Stanbridge worships at the altar of nature, and his most recent series of landscape work invites everyone to give praise to the natural wonders of his Bay of Plenty home

Waves at Pikowai, Nikon D810, 200mm, 1/500s, f/8, ISO 64

While it is not everything, a good name goes a long way towards helping a project succeed. It’s got to be both evocative and informative; it has to grab attention without giving away the game. Whatever your spiritual affiliation, you can’t deny that landscape photographer James Stanbridge hit the mark with the title of his latest exhibition: Nature is My Church.

Nature is My Church stops a lot more people than ‘Landscape Photos by James Stanbridge’,” he says with a chuckle. “Nobody would stop for that; even I wouldn’t stop for that.”

Beyond semantic impact, and perhaps a dollop of controversy, the name has a very real connection to the Whakatane-based photographer’s practice. Raised in the small Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki, James had a strong Christian upbringing, but, as he got older, that part of his life seemed not to fit him any more. Walking away from organized religion, he came to understand that a large part of his experience was rooted in the church: the gathering, the study, the worship. 

Leaving the church felt right, but it left a void that wanted filling. 

Whakatane Morning View Toward Moutohora, Nikon D810, 135mm, 1/200s, f/8, ISO 64

“A lot of the time, something that gave me a sense of spirituality was being out there in ‘God’s Own’,” he says of his time spend in nature. “There’s nothing quite like seeing the sun crest over the horizon, the sky turn blood red for 20 minutes, the stars, or some beautiful waves. It creates a sense of connection with something larger than yourself; you forget yourself for a moment.”

It is that sense of awe and connection that James strives to convey in the images making up Nature is My Church: breathtaking scenes from the Bay of Plenty that have captured the artist’s attention over years of living in different spots throughout the region. It’s fitting the land should be James’ first great subject, as it was the particularities of the area that gave birth to his landscape practice.

An artist of many disciplines, James moved from the region’s biggest city, Tauranga, to the much sleepier town of Whakatane to accept a job as a graphic designer. He expected the slower pace of life to give him ample time to focus on what, at the time, was his primary artistic pursuit: drawing.

“But when I got here, I had no desire to do the obsessive drawing thing any more,” he explains. “It was just gone.”

In its stead, James felt a powerful draw to the natural environment around him. He found himself taking more walks, observing the sunrise and sunset, and experienced a growing urge to engage with these scenes through photography. Landscape photography had always been an interest for him, but in Whakatane it blossomed into a true focus.

View of Ohiwa Harbour at Sunset from Onekawa Pa, Nikon D810, 24mm, 1/3s, f/10, ISO 64

“Nature here is so accessible; I walk across the road from my house and I’m on the sand. You don’t have to go far to get that fix. If you want to see an amazing waterfall, it’s a quick drive to Tarawera Falls — the waterfall comes out of the cliff; it’s amazing. If I want to stop for the sunset, it’s on my drive home; I just stop for two minutes and check it out. Having that around gave me the platform to create the body of work I based my show on.”

While nature has provided ample inspiration for the photographer, it’s his distinct vision that is able to breathe life into the captured images. Eschewing the conventional wisdom of wide-angle shooting for landscapes, James prefers to work with primes or his trusty 70-200mm telephoto zoom.

“Zooming in, you can create quite a sense of depth within the photo: you can get down low and shoot across a field, out to a mountain in the distance, and you can get all those elements in the foreground,” he explains. “With a really wide lens, they are all minimized — so small. With a zoom or a prime, you get that layered effect of the different landscape elements in the foreground and background.”

This layering allows the photographer to concentrate heavily on composition. Picking out a singular focus point in the frame — say a statue or an island — he will seek out his shot with the desired elements painted into the scene: banding of cloud, a pop of grass at the edges, rocky texture at the fore, a fence leading the eye through the frame, creating a dramatic, personal feel.

That Tarawera Tree IV, Nikon D810, 70mm, 1/125s, f/2.8, ISO 64

“I want to get all the elements that would be in a wide-angle shot, but get them in an intimate-feeling way.”

The results are impressive, but the process is far from fast. James is constantly travelling around with an eye out for potential scenes. Once he finds one, he sticks with it until he has wrung out every last drop of potential. One such spot is Wairaka, the Lady on the Rock — a bronze statue poised atop Turuturu Rock at Whakatane Heads.

“That’s an incredibly dramatic spot. It’s right at the head of the Whakatane River, so you have the outflow of the river and the inflow of the waves — you get this churning of two different waters coming together.”

The photographer has shot this scene as the sun sets behind the statue, as seagulls caper around it, in the midst of storms, in the glow of the stars, and many times besides. 

Once, by pure chance, James shot the statue as the moon hit the horizon and created a bright orange glow against the jet black sky, and a car turned the corner in time to cast artificial light onto the statue in the foreground. That photo has proved to be his most successful yet, going viral across the internet and selling more than all his other photos to date combined. It was a nice pay-off for the various lengths to which James has gone, and will continue to go, to get his shots.

Mist Rolls over the Whakatane River, Nikon D810, 86mm, 1/400s, f/8, ISO 64

“The best shots are shots where you are out on a limb: you’re trespassing, or you’re not normally meant to be taking a photo, stopping on the side of the road, standing on the fence while a state highway zips behind you, but just shamelessly getting that photo,” he says with mischievous glee. “You have to take advantage of those moments.”

While James will obviously go to lengths to achieve his purposes, he is extremely humble about his process. Rather than position himself above those who view his images, the photographer wishes to inspire and encourage people to attempt shots of this sort themselves. To that end, the Nature is My Church exhibition displayed not only images but also showed the technical details of each shot, the GPS coordinates, time and date, and even a map marking out each location.

“I really wanted to share how accessible the beauty of the area is,” he says. “People don’t have to go on a five-hour hike to get some of those shots. They just have to go on a five-minute walk from The Warehouse to a nice spot where you can’t see the rest of town. That was the kaupapa behind it, open-minded sharing.”

As much as James put out to the public — and it was a lot; he shot, printed, framed, and designed every element of the show himself, and even invited people on personal tours via Facebook — the artist believes he got back just as much in return. He’s currently recuperating and focusing on paying gigs, but be sure you’ll see more from James again soon. 

If history shows us anything, it’s that you can’t take the faith from the faithful.