Alfred Henry Burton was the eldest of four sons of John Burton and his wife, Martha Neal. He was born at Leicester, Leicestershire, England, probably sometime between 1833 and 1835. John Burton had founded the firm of John Burton and Sons, printers and photographers of Leicester, with branches in Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham and other Midland towns. All four of his sons seem to have started work with the family firm.
In 1856 Alfred emigrated to New Zealand, and was employed in Auckland as a printer for about three years. After a similar period spent in Sydney, Australia, he returned to England. He married Lydia Taylor at Ramsgate, Kent, on 15 November 1864, when he was manager of the Nottingham branch of John Burton and Sons. His brother, Walter John Burton, who also trained as a printer and photographer, had married three weeks before Alfred, on 24 October 1864 at Lincoln. He and his wife, Helen Jemima Draper, emigrated to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1866.
It was at Walter's invitation that Alfred returned to New Zealand, attracted by opportunities for landscape photography in the burgeoning province of Otago. Alfred and Lydia Burton arrived in Dunedin in 1868. Their daughter, Oona Emma, came with them; they were to have two more daughters and a son, Harold Taylor.
Alfred joined Walter's photography business, and the firm became known as Burton Brothers. Their first studio was in Princes Street, Dunedin, and looked remarkably similar to the Leicester frontage of John Burton and Sons, with a large coat of arms claiming royal patronage. For several years the brothers advertised as dealers in Masonic clothing and jewels and they also sold newspapers and fancy goods. However, the demand for photographs was constant: Dunedin settlers wished to send home portraits and views of the new country. Consequently, the first years of the partnership were busy and successful.
During the 1870s the business expanded. Alfred was travelling over much of New Zealand taking photographs of a landscape new to European eyes. Panoramic views were a speciality. On arrival, he had had the coachbuilders Robin and Company build a travelling dark-van, essential in the days of wet-plate collodion when photographic plates had to be processed on the spot. Where the van could not be taken, pack-horses and a small dark-tent had to be used. Alfred narrates how, on the West Coast, coating plates in the dark-tent 'was truly a delightful experience in a region where the tiny but potent sandfly worked his wicked will.' He would be pouring the collodion onto the plate to make an even coating and the 'little wretches' would take advantage while he was occupied to bite his face and hands. Often a sandfly would 'with devilish art, plump himself right in the middle' of the plate which would then have to be discarded. Once this occurred three times in succession. In March 1874 Alfred accompanied the official expedition to the West Coast sounds on the Luna and undertook photographic work.
Meanwhile Walter Burton looked after the portrait side of the business, a little half-heartedly. He could not travel because he did not enjoy the robust health of his older brother. As an investment he acquired various properties in the centre of Dunedin which he held until late 1878.
Both Alfred and Walter held positions of prominence in the orders of Freemasonry. Alfred became affiliated on his arrival in Dunedin in the Lodge of Otago, was installed master in 1873, and was provincial grand master from 1890 until 1893 and grand master of New Zealand in 1904 and 1905. In all Alfred gave some 50 years to the study of Freemasonry. Walter was initiated in the Lodge Otago Kilwinning in 1867 and was provincial grand jeweller from 1870 to 1872. The Otago Witness of 6 June 1868 records that Walter took a photograph of the laying of the foundation stone of the Masonic Hall, at which 2,000 were present.
Some idea of the diverse activities of Burton Brothers during the first decade can be gained from a montage which Alfred prepared. In it, about 650 portraits are skilfully arranged around the firm's title. Included are photographs of the premises, spiritualist seances showing levitation, a military group, and Alfred and Walter clowning. But although the firm was successful, there were differences between the brothers which contributed to the break-up of the partnership in 1877, after which the two saw little of each other.
Walter travelled to Europe and visited studios, bringing back with him the latest equipment to set up an independent studio in premises in George Street in late 1878. He called it the Royal Gallery of Photography. It did not prosper, however, because of his uncertain health, and on 10 May 1880 he committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. Walter's wife, two sons and a daughter returned to England, and in July 1880 his studio passed to Robert Clifford and John Richard Morris.
Meanwhile, Alfred continued to run the firm of Burton Brothers. Between 1877 and 1880 the youngest Burton brother, John William, came out to Dunedin and joined the business but returned to England after Walter's death. By about 1882 Alfred had entered into partnership with Thomas Mintaro Muir, and acquired the lease of the building on the corner of Princes Street and Moray Place. Muir was born, probably in 1851 or 1852, in Australia and emigrated to New Zealand with his parents, Matthew Bailey Muir and Amelia Muir (née Allen). Seven of the Muir and Allen families are known to have taken up photography. Young Thomas Muir had also became a photographer in Dunedin and his aptitude and enthusiasm were rewarded when he was included in the party that recorded the transit of Venus at Queenstown in 1874. He then joined Alfred Burton as portrait operator. During the 10 years after he became a partner the firm achieved great successes, and in 1885 Muir and Burton were able to open a large portrait studio at the Exchange Court on Princes Street.
Alfred Burton continued to travel widely from 1880 onwards, but encountered some setbacks. In 1882 and 1883 he set out to photograph the Sutherland Falls in Fiordland, but claimed he was tricked and frustrated by jealous rivals. In 1884 he went to Fiji and was disappointed to find that the Fijians had become accustomed to tourists and were camera-conscious. But the following year he had the good fortune to meet the surveyor John Rochfort at Wanganui. In the company of Rochfort and the painter Edward William Payton, he made a pioneer journey through the King Country during the months of May and June.
Burton found the Maori people of the King Country completely innocent of photography, and succeeded in taking a total of some 150 plates of genuine ethnographic significance. The value of these photographs was later recognised by museums in Europe and America. The title of Burton's catalogue of prints, The Māori at home, is fully justified for he made no attempt to pose his subjects or make studio portraits. He also published his journal of the trip, Through the King Country with the camera: a photographer's diary (1885), and although his account at times sounds far-fetched, Payton, in his book, Round about New Zealand (1888), confirms it. Payton emphasised that 'Scarcely a single white man had been through the heart of the King Country', and observed that the Maori people were fascinated by Burton's camera. Indeed, they were more interested in Burton's photographic rituals, although they did not see the result, than in Payton's drawing.
Burton's enterprise was unflagging; he sent his son, Harold, whom he was training to take his place, to photograph the aftermath of the Mt Tarawera eruption in 1886, and in 1888 to participate in a survey expedition to the Sutherland Falls. The following year Harold accompanied his father to Lakes Manapōuri and Te Anau to take photographs in the winter. A photograph shows them in camp with a 20-inch by 18-inch Meagher plate camera.
Then tragedy struck: in 1890 Harold lost an arm as the result of a gunshot wound. A one-armed photographer was then a near impossibility, and George Moodie, who had been with the firm since the 1880s, took over much of the topographical photography. Moodie matched Burton in indefatigability; in a report he wrote for the New Zealand Alpine Journal in 1893 he described how he took the Meagher camera and a supply of the large glass plates for it on to the Tasman Glacier. Moodie also accompanied annual Union Steam Ship Company cruiser trips to the sounds, taking group portraits and photographs of scenery.
In 1898 Burton retired. Around this time Thomas Muir formed a new partnership with George Moodie, and the firm of Muir and Moodie entered very successfully into the postcard era. Their partnership was dissolved about 1916. Subsequently Muir maintained the studio at Invercargill until 1940. Later he acquired property at Broad Bay on the Otago Peninsula and died there in 1945.
For 16 years after giving up photography Alfred Burton was a teacher of elocution, with rooms at 5 Liverpool Street, Dunedin. According to an educational directory of 1913, he advocated 'the cultivation of the speaking voice in the pulpit, on the platform, and in the drawing room; by effective and graceful recitation, and by correct and picturesque reading.' He also taught elocution at Knox College.
Burton gave his energy to other pursuits: he was one of the founders of the Dunedin Shakespeare Club, and secretary of the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute. He was well known for his 'Evenings with great authors' and in 1897 he directed a production of Dion Boucicault's The octaroon for the Dunedin Amateur Dramatic Club. As well, he wrote The mining investor's guide to the gold dredging companies of Otago and Southland and the West Coast of the Middle Island of New Zealand, published in Dunedin in 1900–1901. Alfred Burton died in Dunedin on 2 February 1914. His elocution school was continued by his daughter, Oona Burton, until her departure to Auckland in 1925. Harold Burton had died in a riding accident in 1901.
During the latter part of his life Alfred Burton had not lost all interest in photography. In 1911 he had a montage of himself making 37 theatrical gestures produced by Charles Armstrong. He was ever a showman. His contemporaries remembered him as a tall, upright man, striding importantly along Princes Street.