In Victorian times, most photographers in this country made their living by taking studio portraits. However, a small number focused, for parts of their career at least, on landscape photography. The Burton Brothers did this; so did James Bragge.
Bragge was born in South Shields, Durham, England. As a young man he, like his father, worked as a cabinetmaker. Then, in the early 1860s, he emigrated to South Africa and became a photographer. After a brief stint there, he moved to New Zealand, settled in Wellington, and opened his own photographic studio.
It was 1876 when Bragge first hitched a mobile darkroom to a horse, and rode northwards towards the Wairarapa, taking photographs along the way. These show places like Dannevirke, Norsewood and Eketahuna, where huge tracts of land were being cleared, and roads, bridges, and settlements were being built. Bragge's photographs were immediately popular with Wellington audiences, who saw them as representing progress. And today, they're valuable records of the settlement process.
Between 1876 and 1878, Bragge made several trips through the Wairarapa, taking about 200 photographs. It's been estimated that he took two or three a day. Given the cumbersome photographic and developing process he had to use, this is a quite respectable figure!
The photographic technology of the time also meant Bragge had to carry his darkroom with him. Photographs had to be developed very quickly after being taken - which generally meant on the spot.
Some landscape photographers took portable darkroom tents around with them. Others, like Bragge, had a darkroom set up on the back of a horse-drawn cart. Bragge's cart, with his name prominent on the side, became almost a trademark in his photographs.
Bragge sold prints of the photographs he took on his journeys. At his studio in Wellington, customers could buy the prints individually, or in an album Wellington to the Wairarapa, containing fifty photographs of their choice. The albums were highly praised. The Evening Argus commented, 'These pictures have been taken with a delicacy and sharpness which we have never seen excelled in photographs of scenery. In every instance the point of view has been selected with admirable judgement and the result is a splendid selection of scenic gems . [This is an album] many settlers in Wellington will be glad to buy and send to friends at home [England].'(1)
Bragge also took many photographs in Wellington city, including several of Government Buildings. For about two decades, he photographed Wellington again and again from exactly the same spots. These valuable images show how the city changed and developed between the late 1860s and early 1880s. They are rich in detail, because Bragge used very large negatives. Some were 16 x 12 inches (30 x 41 cm).
In 1879, the Wellington City Council commissioned Bragge to produce twenty-five photographs of Wellington scenes for the Sydney International Exhibition. Along with a selection of his Wellington to the Wairarapa images, they won a high award against stiff international competition.
Despite his success, Bragge doesn't seem to have taken many landscape photographs after the 1870s. This may be because New Zealand went into an economic depression in the 1880s, and businesses like his had to reduce costs. Instead of landscape work, Bragge once again concentrated on portraits, taking them in his Manners Street studios and later from his home in Adelaide Road.
Bragge died in Wellington in 1908. Most of his surviving negatives are held by Te Papa. Both Te Papa and the National Library of New Zealand hold his albums and prints.
1. Main, William (1974). Bragge's Wellington and the Wairarapa. Wellington: Millwood Press, pp. 12-13
Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre, Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.
Main, William (1993). 'Bragge, James'. In Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Vol. 2: 1870-1900. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books / Department of Internal Affairs, pp. 54-55
Main, William (1974). Bragge's Wellington and the Wairarapa. Wellington: Millwood Press
Main, William (1980). 'James Bragge (1833-1908) of Wellington, New Zealand'. In History of Photography, Vol. 4, No. 1: pp. 1-8.
Main, William and John B. Turner (1993). New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the Present Nga Whakaahua o Aotearoa mai i 1840 ki naianei. Auckland: PhotoForum Inc., p.18
Main, William (1972). Wellington Through a Victorian Lens. Wellington: Millwood Press
Portrait of James Bragge date and photographer unknown Courtesy of William Main
Quick - before it dries!
Bragge made his landscape photographs using the collodion wet-plate process. This was the standard process available from the 1860s to the early 1880s.
First, he sensitised a glass plate by coating it with collodion - a sticky fluid that forms a transparent film when the solvents evaporate. Then he poured the collodion onto the plate, carefully moving it to spread the collodion evenly. Finally the wet collodion plate was placed in the camera, exposed, and developed - all while the collodion was still wet.