Robert Blomfield, a British doctor and street photographer who died in December 2020, left behind many shoeboxes filled with exceptional photographic prints of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital.
Blomfield (b. 1938), inspired by Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Doisneau, practiced street photography throughout the UK from the late 1950s in Edinburgh, where he was a medical student at 18, until the early 1970s.
He was always seen with his trusty Nikon F, Nikon’s first SLR camera, often with black tape over the Nikon name to make himself less intrusive. Perhaps he learned it from Cartier-Bresson, who covered his chrome Leica camera with black tape to make it less noticeable.
The camera was usually loaded with Kodak Tri-Xs, as he quietly observed anything interesting or amusing that might come up in a post-war city in transition.
Blomfield was especially fascinated by children playing in the streets.
“Even when he passed away, he always had his cameras with him,” says Will Blomfield, Robert’s eldest son, in the Stuart Edwards film. Robert Bloomfield: Student of Light. “I remembered when we used to go to Sheffield [in England] visit my grandmother[father], and we were driving through the countryside, and suddenly he would stop the car… and the camera would come out. Everybody was moaning, ‘here we go again,’ and he was going after a tree or something.
“It was just a feature of our lives…our dad was a camera freak.”
What is special about this work is that it was incorporated into his medical studies, and it must have taken a lot of determination to find the time to shoot, develop and print. He was at medical school from 1956 to 1964 in Edinburgh when he really honed his photographic skills.
He was interested in people and getting to know them as a doctor or a photographer. He also grew close to his subjects, so his images show a kind of intimacy even though he had only first encountered many of his subjects on the street.
“I think it’s a form of love,” Blomfield remarked. “You should like the picture. I love photographs. I like people.
Intrinsically understand how to compose
“He understood that the work was good,” says George Blomfield, the middle of the deceased photographer’s three sons. “But I felt like he didn’t quite understand how he did it…he just inherently understood how to compose and how everything was going to happen, and I never understood how he did that. .”
“Most of Blomfield’s early work focuses on his time in Edinburgh until the late 1960s – a period during which the city was undergoing significant change,” says Daryl Green, Head of Special Collections and Deputy Director from the Center for Research Collections, 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 across the Forth, we meet his fellow students and doctors, children on the streets, merchants, public speakers and feel the dynamism of a city on the verge of change.
“The fact that Robert’s work has gone relatively unrecognized for nearly 60 years amazes me. In his work we perceive 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 rather shy”, says the medical photographer of Robert Blomfield: An Invisible Eye. “And I guess I used the camera as a protection to some degree…gave me the excuse to go places that, without a camera, I would have been shy to explore.
“I think in a lot of these photos, they were put there for me to take a picture of. I didn’t have to set the stage, the scenery fell into place. The photo presented itself 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 father would often help him develop the film and enlarge the prints in their own makeshift darkroom at the family home in Sheffield,” says Blomfield’s son, Will, in Street Photography Magazine. “He was rewarded for his efforts with his own (used) Contax II camera on his fifteenth birthday.
“Now he had his own camera; he took him everywhere and started recording everything around him. In this early phase, he seemed particularly interested in things that moved quickly – airplanes, racing cars, the family dog in mid-flight – and it was probably because of this that he became so good at capturing these fleeting moments in his later street photography. ”
The British journal of photography publishes several of his photos in 1967. At that time, he plans to become a professional photographer. However, fearing that commissioned work would dull the spontaneity of his images, he decided to pursue his chosen career in the medical profession.
In 1999 Blomfield suffered a stroke which crippled his left side and as a result could no longer handle his heavy Nikons. He also retired from his medical practice. He refused to give up photography altogether and switched gears to a small digital point-and-shoot, which he used to photograph everything around him.
His wife, Jane Alexander, an art historian, toured galleries in the 2000s in an attempt to promote the work, but could not get traction at the time.
Blomfield died in December 2020 at the age of 82, but he had a lifelong ambition to see his images in a realized book. Robert Blomfield: Edinburgh 1957 – 1966 was released a few weeks ago. One section included stories of people who recognized themselves in her photos when they were exhibited earlier.
Today the two 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 strewn all over the house.
Robert Blomfield: Edinburgh 1957 – 1966 can be ordered from Bluecoat Press.
You can see more of Blomfield’s work on her website and Instagram.
About the Author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera courses in New York at the International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was director and teacher of Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days workshops. You can reach him here.
Picture credits: All photos by Robert Blomfield, courtesy of Bluecoat Press.