Landmark photo collection finds home at University
A landmark archive of acclaimed street photographer Robert Blomfield has been deposited at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections.
Born in Leeds in 1938, Blomfield moved to Edinburgh in 1956 to study medicine. He arrived in the city as an enthusiastic amateur who was never without a camera around his neck and, over the next decade, honed his skills as a prolific street photographer.
Blomfield’s camera stayed with him almost everywhere he went – on the streets, into homes, when he was working as a junior doctor at the Royal Infirmary and on his trips into the Scottish countryside. He also developed and printed his own work in a makeshift darkroom set up in his various student flats.
He continued to document life around him as he moved to London to pursue his career, and his archive includes unique insights into London, Sheffield, Glasgow and beyond.
A lost city
“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, “Through his lens we see the last breaths of the Old Town before modernisation 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.”
Despite the quality of Blomfield’s work and his never-ending passion, he remained relatively unknown throughout most of his active career. His wife Jane, also an alumna of the University, started the process of organising and digitising her husband’s work before their three sons took up the reins after her death in 2011.
A blockbuster exhibition at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre in 2018 introduced his work to a new audience. Thousands of people were able to see his work for the first time and its beauty and significance immediately struck chords.
Since 2018, family members have further promoted his work and they began discussions with the University in late 2020 to provide a permanent home for this richly important archive.
Student of light
Blomfield died in December 2020, passionate about photography until his last days. His archive of original prints, film and colour slides have recently been deposited in the University’s Centre for Research Collections, within the Main Library in George Square. Work has begun to make this archive accessible to all.
“We're absolutely delighted to be able to make this deposit to the University," says Will Blomfield, Robert's eldest son. "Edinburgh and its people always held a special place in dad's heart, and he would be thrilled that his photographs have found such an appropriate home."
“The fact that Robert’s work remained relatively unknown for almost 60 years is astounding to me,” says Mr Green. “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.
"Blomfield is Edinburgh’s quiet answer to Glasgow’s Oscar Marzaroli, to Paris’s Brassaï, and the archive that the family has entrusted his work to the University provides a rich and complex record of how he developed his eye and his skills in the darkroom. We are very excited to share Robert’s work with the widest possible audience.”
An exhibition at the University’s Main Library gallery celebrating Blomfield’s time as a student at the University, entitled Robert Blomfield: Student of Light, will open on 6 May 2022 and will show through the summer.
Picture credits: Robert Blomfield