Alfred Charles Barker was born in Hackney, London, England, on 5 January 1819, the fifth child and fourth son of Joseph Gibbs Barker and his wife, Sarah Pritchett Bousfield. Barker was descended from a fifteenth century gentry family, the Barkers of Aston, Claverley, in Staffordshire, and latterly a line of prosperous Birmingham merchants. His father was a wealthy London linen merchant turned evangelist, a puritan whose passion was converting Jews to Christianity. Privately schooled at Hereford, Alfred Barker at the age of 21 entered the medical faculty of King's College, London, where most subjects were taught within the strict orthodoxy of the Church of England.
In 1845 he graduated as a surgeon, and on 1 July he and Emma Bacon were married by his brother, the Reverend William Gibbs Barker, at the parish church of St John, Hampstead. The young doctor practised at Matlock Bath and Rugby, before deciding to emigrate to New Zealand. His object was, his wife wrote, 'to purchase land and be the first doctor among the Colonists who are all well connected families.'
Emma Barker was three months pregnant when they sailed out of Plymouth in September 1850 with their sons, Dick, Sam and baby Arthur, headed for their first southern summer. As surgeon on board the Charlotte Jane, Barker received a free passage and a salary in return for looking after the 150 emigrants and settlers. The Barkers landed at Lyttelton on 16 December 1850, and their first New Zealand-born child, Sarah Elizabeth (Lizzy), was born three months later in their Christchurch tent home, which Alfred humorously dubbed 'Studding Sail Hall'. Four more children were born between 1853 and 1858: Mary, Francis, John and William.
As the only doctor on the Canterbury Plains in the early years of European settlement, Alfred Barker had a large, diverse, and often strenuous practice. Aside from well-remembered eccentricities of dress and manner, Barker was a competent and respected physician. Innovative at best, as in his early use of chloroform for surgery, he is also known to have made a steam bath of his own design. By the time other doctors were establishing themselves in Canterbury, Barker had begun to lose interest in his practice. It had not been as lucrative as he had hoped – some clients simply did not pay – and his own health was marred by a recurring spinal injury caused by a fall from his horse. But it was the tragic death of Emma Barker on 2 October 1858, five weeks after she had borne their eighth child, that hastened his retirement from medicine, although he did retain the post of registrar of births, deaths and marriages.
A complex man, Barker was sometimes generous and loving, at other times stingy and complaining. His investments yielded a sizeable fortune, although he became increasingly preoccupied with them, especially after the death of his wife; he fretted over the youthful activities of his eldest sons, who were considered too dull to take up a profession.
A voracious reader, he was very active among the intelligentsia of the settlement. He contributed papers on Darwinism to the Canterbury Philosophical Institute in 1872 and 1873, published articles in the local press under the name of Syphax, and corresponded with the British scientists Thomas Huxley and Richard Owen. He developed some interesting concepts in aeronautics, involved himself in church and educational activities, and was a competent architect. The library of Christ's College was built from his plans after his death. A spell on the provincial council from 1855 to 1857 left him impatient with political life.
The origin of Barker's interest in photography is uncertain, although he may have learned the wet-plate process from the Christchurch architect Benjamin Mountfort. His earliest authenticated photographs date from 1858, but he probably started a year or two earlier, judging from an undated set of small family portraits which may have been made with a lens from his brother's telescope in a home-made camera.
By December 1858 Barker had achieved the first of a series of successful portraits of Anne Bowen, a close family friend. He built a darkroom at his home on the edge of Cathedral Square, and devoted himself to photographing family and friends, the growing settlement, local events, his land purchases, and zoological specimens of interest. He made hundreds of negatives, gave generously of his prints, and involved his whole family in the process. His son Samuel made an important series of photographs in the Chatham Islands in 1873, and it is evident from the easy familiarity with which she described her father's photographic activities in her memoirs that Elizabeth Barker had been involved with the medium.
While Barker's photographs exhibit the typical hallmarks of frontier photography of his era – a hotchpotch of formats, crudely cut glass negatives, inconsistent exposures and uneven emulsions – such crudeness does not hide his talent. His work in the new medium shows a spark of life and truth that he could not capture in pen or pencil, and his best portraits are superb. The photographs of his family and their activities are tender and revealing. A handful of his Christchurch views go beyond being invaluable historical evidence; such works as his domestic interiors, for instance, are rare documents. His most haunting series, however, is an extraordinary collection of self-portraits made from 1858 until a month before his death in Christchurch on 20 March 1873, from meningitis.