James Bragge worked as a commercial photographer in Wellington after emigrating from England in the mid-1860s. He assembled selections of his prints into a series of impressive albums titled Photographs of New Zealand scenery — Wellington to Wairarapa, which document his journey from the city to newly settled areas in the north.
This photograph depicts a transitional moment in New Zealand’s colonial history: the beginning of the clearing of vast areas of native forest in the lower North Island. It shows a path that has been cut through the bush, creating a horizon and drawing light down into the view. The avenue, a strip of dirt road through the trees, announces the arrival of European cultural perspectives on the landscape. After this photograph was taken, the bush was milled and burnt off.
Forty Mile Bush was one of the names given to land acquired from Rangitane in 1871 as part of the sale of the Seventy Mile Bush around Eketahuna. The area was settled by Scandinavian immigrants who had been allocated land in twenty-acre blocks. At the time of Bragge’s photograph, the avenue was the extent of land clearance, while the bush areas either side were regarded as lots awaiting settlers who would clear and develop them into farmland. The romantic figure of the wanderer in European art since the seventeenth century has become the colonial ‘swagman’ in Bragge’s photograph. Transient workers frequently walked along cut tracks such as this in search of mill or land clearance work during the boom years of the 1870s, when the rapid development of cities like Wellington created constant demand for wood. The lone figure stands dwarfed by the density and grandeur of his surroundings — yet his labour represents the visual and economic transformation that was wrought in this area by immigrants seeking to prosper.
Five Mile Avenue, Forty Mile Bush was probably included among Bragge’s prints exhibited at the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879. A reviewer wrote that ‘the collection while resounding much to the credit and artistic skill of the photographer, will give visitors to the exhibition an excellent and doubtless favourable idea of the city of Wellington and its environs’.1
This essay appears in Art at Te Papa, (Te Papa Press, 2009)
1. New Zealander, 29 August 1879, cited in William Main, Bragge’s Wellington and the Wairarapa, Millwood Press, Wellington, 1974, p. 15.