James Bragge was baptised on 12 June 1833 at South Shields, Durham, England, the son of Harriet Wigglesworth and her husband, James Bragge, a mechanic and later a builder and architect. Of his early life little is known. Following his father's trade he completed an apprenticeship as a journeyman cabinet-maker. On 21 May 1854 he married Elizabeth Ann Fish at South Shields; they were to have three daughters. A few years after their marriage the couple emigrated to South Africa and it was there that James Bragge learned about photography. In the mid 1860s the family travelled to Wellington, New Zealand. Here Bragge established a photographic business to which he gave the grandiose and somewhat spurious name of the New Zealand Academy of Photographic Art.
Apart from an absence between April 1871 and July 1873, Bragge's career was entirely centred in Wellington. In 1871 he departed for Auckland, but although he placed an advertisement in Wise's New Zealand Commercial Directory it is not known if he took up residence there.
Portraiture was the life-blood of the photographic trade but Bragge was one of few photographers to concentrate on landscape and panoramic work. He soon became known for his excellent views of Wellington and its environs. One of his specialities was selecting a key site for his camera and returning to the same position over a number of years. From these series of photographs it is possible to trace the development of the city from several aspects from the late 1860s to the early 1880s.
A distinguishing feature of his photographs was his ability to manage large groups of people. A good example is his re-enactment photograph of the Imperial Opera House fire of 15 June 1879. This conflagration engulfed a block of buildings before being halted by the combined efforts of the staff of James Smith's drapery store and the fire brigade. The following day Bragge took a picture of the scene at James Smith's store with the co-operation of upwards of 100 people. This is the more remarkable when it is understood that the exposure must have been of about 10 seconds duration and was accomplished using the cumbersome collodion wet-plate method – a system whereby the photographer had to prepare the plate on the spot and develop it within minutes. His coverage of the laying of the foundation stone of the Supreme Court House, on 1 December 1879, is similarly a masterpiece in crowd management. Here he organised hundreds into a homogeneous composition. These and other studies, some of which deploy only a handful of people, illustrate Bragge's ability to visualise a composition before it was exposed. They also reveal something of his personality and standing within the community.
When he returned to Wellington in 1873, typically there was no flourish of notices in the local newspapers. A solitary series of advertisements had appeared in the Wellington Independent in 1868, but Bragge apparently felt little need to promote his services in this way. Other photographers constantly clamoured for attention with all sorts of inducements in order to claim their share of the lucrative portrait trade. In the winter of 1879 Bragge was commissioned by the Wellington City Council to complete a series of photographic views for the Sydney International Exhibition. These studies, made on glass plates measuring 16 inches by 12 inches, gained him an award against international competition and no doubt helped to cement his position in the public's mind.
Although he never completely forsook his portrait business, an indication of Bragge's preference for landscape photography is the special horse-drawn cart he had constructed as a portable darkroom. This features in many of his compositions and became almost a trade mark of his work. The pinnacle of his career came when he embarked on trips into Wairarapa and the Manawatū Gorge in 1876 and 1878. Using a smaller format camera than usual, he photographed roads, bridges, townships and settler homes. He marketed these views in a de luxe album entitled Wellington to the Wairarapa. These photographs are a valuable record of the opening up of the Wairarapa and Manawatū regions through the development of road and rail transport and the clearing of the land.
In the later stages of his life Bragge maintained a portrait gallery in Manners Street and finally at his residence in Adelaide Road. Here he confined himself to portraiture and commissions using gelatine dry plates, the successor to collodion photography. In June 1893 Elizabeth Bragge died. On 11 March 1900, at Wellington, James Bragge married 25-year-old Lynda Segus Banfield, who worked for him as a photo-retoucher. They had two children: a son who died in infancy and a daughter. Bragge died in Wellington on 17 July 1908. His estate was valued at £2,300, which gives some indication of his success during his lifetime. A number of his negatives are held by Te Papa Tongarewa.