Gordon Onslow Hilbury Burt was born in Christchurch on 27 November 1893, the son of Alfred John Hilbury Burt, a wool sorter, and his wife, Annie Pannell. He was raised in Christchurch, and his formal education was completed between 1909 and 1911 at Canterbury College School of Art. In 1915 he went to Wellington to enlist for the First World War, but was rejected for active service because of his eyesight. He stayed on in the capital and took up work with a photographer, where his art training stood him in good stead. On 1 December 1917, at Wellington, he married Mary Isabel Nixon.
Gordon Burt opened his own business in 1924. At that time portraiture was still the mainstay of professional photography in New Zealand. However, the increase in production of machine-made goods in the 1920s and 1930s created a huge demand for advertising photography, and Burt became involved in commercial illustrating, forging close links with advertising agencies such as Goldberg's. His skill at this work made him one of Wellington's leading commercial photographers. Most of his photographs during these years were used for window displays, posters, catalogue illustrations and press advertisements.
His innovative approach to photographing consumer items included techniques such as superimposition and other montage effects. These image manipulations, used in association with lively copy and imaginative graphics, won him great respect from clients. One of his biggest and most profitable accounts during the depression was the General Motors Corporation.
Gordon and Mary Burt were divorced in 1937, and on 6 November that year, in Wellington, he married Eileen McMahon. In 1939 and 1940 Burt's firm was involved in the preparation of various publications and displays issued for the New Zealand centennial celebrations. During the Second World War many American servicemen made use of his studio on Lambton Quay to have their portraits made for their families back home. After the war several of his former employees established their own businesses, and in the face of increased competition Burt diversified his operations to include screen advertising slides for cinemas, and plan printing for architects and engineers.
In the 1940s he developed a method of colour printing called Tru-Colour, one of the most successful methods of colour photography then available in New Zealand. He also manufactured and marketed Tru-Colour separation sets for people who wanted to make their own colour prints. Although Burt invested much time and money on the system, Tru-Colour was unable to compete with the products of larger international concerns.
At one time Gordon Burt employed upwards of 20 people: carpenters, who manufactured free-standing counter displays, silk-screen printers, copywriters, artists and designers. Gradually, as advertising agencies appointed in-house photographers (many former employees of Burt), his business decreased. When he retired around 1965 it centred on photographic murals and plan printing, with a staff of three or four.
Outside his work, which was his main interest, Burt painted some watercolours and enjoyed shooting and tramping. He also read a good deal and liked intellectual arguments. He died in Lower Hutt on 9 July 1968, survived by his wife and three children of his first marriage. After his death his wife Eileen and a former employee carried on the business for a while.
That Burt's profile in New Zealand photography is assured is due mainly to the efforts of a small group who in 1970 managed to extract a representative selection of approximately 2,500 glass and nitrate negatives from an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 stored in a building under notice of demolition. Exhibitions of his work based on these salvaged negatives were held in 1979 at the National Art Gallery and again in 1988 at the National Library of New Zealand. The photographs in the exhibitions were reproduced as pure art objects: completely out of their original context and without advertising copy or graphics. Unfortunately, this tended to obscure the impact they would have had in the 1920s and 1930s as supreme advertising images.
Gordon Burt's craftsmanship in the studio was without equal. There were few if any New Zealand photographers between the two world wars who could approach his enterprise and inventiveness in commercial photography.