Born in Fairhaven, Massachusetts to a Quaker father who was a ship-fitter, Bradford was formally trained in marine art first sharing a studio with Albert van Beest. In the 1860s he opened a studio in New York and began photographing his subjects as a reference to use in finishing paintings in his studio. This technique aided in capturing exact tones and detail prominent in his completed works.
In 1872 he traveled to England where he was well received by the British art community. Returning to America in 1874 he was elected to the national academy of design. In the 1880s he moved west to San Francisco where he lectured and opened another successful studio. He later returned to New York City where he died in 1892.
Familiar with both Salmon and Lane, Bradford's work incorporates exact topographical detail. His detailed draftsmanship creates a very accurate view recognizable to anyone familiar with the region. It was not uncommon for him to spend days painting a group of rocks to get color and light faithfully rendered.