Robert Blomfield, a British physician and street photographer who passed away in December 2020, left behind a legacy of numerous shoeboxes filled with outstanding photographic prints of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.
Blomfield (born 1938), inspired by Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Doisneau, practiced street photography all over the UK from the late 1950s in Edinburgh, where he was a medical student at age 18, to the early 1970s.
He was always seen with his trusty Nikon F, Nikon’s first SLR camera, often with black tape on the Nikon name to make himself less obtrusive. Maybe he learned it from Cartier-Bresson, who covered his chrome Leica camera with black tape to make it less conspicuous.
The camera was usually loaded with Kodak Tri-X, as he quietly observed anything interesting or amusing that might present itself in a post-war city in transition.
Blomfield was most fascinated by children playing in the streets.
“Even when he passed away, he still had his cameras with him,” says Will Blomfield, Robert’s eldest son, in the Stuart Edwards film Robert Bloomfield: Student of Light. “I used to remember when we were going over to Sheffield [in England] to visit my gran[father], and we would be driving across the countryside, and suddenly he would pull the car over… and out would come the camera. Everyone would groan,’ here we go again,’ and he’d be snapping away at a tree or something.
“It was just a feature of our lives… our dad was a complete camera nut.”
What is special about this work is that it was squeezed in along with his medical studies, and it must have taken a lot of determination to carve out the time to shoot, develop and print. He was at medical college from 1956 through 1964 in Edinburgh when he really honed his photographic skills.
His interest was in people and getting to know them as a doctor or a photographer. He also got close to his subjects with the result that his images show a kind of intimacy even though he had only met many of his subjects on the street for the first time.
“I think it’s a form of love,” Blomfield once remarked. “You should love the picture. I love the photographs. I love the people.”
Intrinsically Understanding How to Compose
“He understood that the work was good,” says George Blomfield, the middle of the late photographer’s three sons. “But I got the impression that he didn’t quite understand how he did it… he just intrinsically understood how to compose and how it is all going to work out, and I never got to the bottom of how he did that.”
“The bulk of Blomfield’s early work focuses on his time in Edinburgh into the late 1960s – a period in which the city was undergoing momentous change,” says Daryl Green, Head of Special Collections and Deputy Head of the Centre for Research Collections, at the University of Edinburgh. “Through his lens, we see the last breaths of the Old Town before modernization took hold, we see the Forth Road Bridge reaching across the Forth, we meet his fellow students and medics, children on the street, shopkeepers, public speakers and feel the vibrancy of a city on the brink of change.
“The fact that Robert’s work remained relatively unknown for almost 60 years is astounding to me. In his work, we sense echoes of earlier street photographers like Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and we can discern the rich attachment to place that we see in contemporaries such as Robert Frank and William Klein.”
“I was quite a shy person,” says the doctor photographer in Robert Blomfield: An Unseen Eye. “And I suppose I used the camera as a protection to a certain extent…gave me the excuse to go around places which, without a camera, I would have been shy of exploring.
“I think in a lot of these pictures, they were put there for me to take a picture of. I didn’t have to set the stage, the stage set itself. The picture was presented in front of me. All I had to do was use the camera.”
“My grandfather was a keen amateur photographer, and so from a young age, my dad would often help him develop the film and enlarge the prints in their own make-shift darkroom in the family home in Sheffield,” says Blomfield’s son, Will, in Street Photography Magazine. “He was rewarded for his efforts with his own (secondhand) Contax II camera on his fifteenth birthday.
“Now he had his own camera; he took it everywhere and began recording everything around him. In this early phase, he seemed particularly interested in things that were moving fast – aeroplanes, racing cars, the family dog in full flight – and it’s probably because of this that he became so good at capturing those fleeting moments in his later street photography.”
The British Journal of Photography published several of his photos in 1967. At that time, he considered becoming a pro photographer. However, fearing that working on commission would blunt the spontaneity of his images, he decided to continue in his chosen career in the medical profession.
In 1999, Blomfield had a stroke that paralyzed his left side and, therefore, could no longer handle his heavy Nikons. He also retired from his medical practice. He refused to give up on photography entirely and changed gears to a small digital point-and-shoot, which he used to snap away at everything around him.
His wife, Jane Alexander, an art historian, did the rounds of galleries in the 2000s trying to promote the work, but she could not get any traction at the time.
Blomfield passed away in December 2020 at the age of 82, but he had his lifelong ambition of seeing his images in a book realized. Robert Blomfield: Edinburgh 1957 – 1966 was released just a few weeks prior. A section included stories about people who recognized themselves in his photos when they were exhibited earlier.
Today both the Blomfields would be very happy to see all the prints and negatives scientifically archived at the University of Edinburgh and no longer in shoeboxes and drawers scattered all over the house.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.