Photography has never been as popular as it is right now. The craze might have been kick-started by smartphones, which put a camera within reach of every one of us, but what really made photography so popular wasn’t the remarkable lenses squeezed into smartphones, it was the rise of social media. It’s all very well taking photos you’re proud of, but if you’ve got no one to show them off to then what’s the point?
Imagine then, what it was like for Robert Blomfield. Through the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, Robert devoted his life to capturing images of the world around him. Inspired by the great photographers of their time, these weren’t just casual snaps, either. Yet instead of publishing them for all to see, Robert showed his favourites to friends and family then put them away in shoeboxes.
“I didn’t think about recognition,” says Robert. “I was quite a loner really. I didn’t show them to people.” The prints stayed in yellow boxes, hidden away. “They were like the Dead Sea Scrolls! Don McCullin [British photojournalist known for his war photography] did come to visit me once in Hebden, introduced by a mutual friend who had seen some of my prints and thought they deserved a wider audience. I remember Don said he particularly liked the “Man in Doorway smoking” shot (although I can’t remember what other shots he was shown).” Over the decades close to 20,000 images were amassed in those boxes
From around 1956, Robert used a small Leica Zeiss Contax rangefinder camera, borrowed from his father. “My dad taught me how to develop film and enlarge the negatives,” says Robert. “He taught me the chemistry you might say. My ideas for composition came more from reading Amateur Photographer and the photos in The Guardian (I admired Dennis Thorpe and Jane Bown). Other compositional influences were from paintings …classical paintings from the Renaissance, paintings of people by Manet, Cezanne, Bruegel.
“I felt my dad liked the photos but didn’t say much about them… he was a man of few words. But I knew they were good. I liked my own composition, the detail, the human interest. I thought one day they might come in useful; be seen by someone who might appreciate them.”
Time of the giants
Robert’s brother Johnny remembers what it was like growing up together. “His whole life seems to be through the viewfinder. From the age of about 13 he was always looking for the quirky, the funny, in everything going on around him all the time.”
This was a period when the likes of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau were first beginning to define the street photography genre with their candid, intimate images. Their skillfully-composed shots could tell a story in a fleeting moment yet look as if they’d been caught by accident. This new style of photography only came about because cameras were getting smaller and it became possible to shoot without being noticed.
The early kit
In those days he was mainly using black and white film (usually Kodak Tri-X), and did all his own developing and printing.
“My first Nikon F was a Christmas present from my dad in 1960.” After using just a 50mm lens for a couple of years Robert invested in an f/3.5 28mm Nikkor lens. “I felt the 28mm liberated my photography – the wide angle gave me a more natural, human view. I also used a 105mm lens; this came later, after the 28mm, and from then on I just used these three lenses. On an average day I would go out and use a 28mm and 105mm, one on each camera.”
Robert’s day job was as a doctor. He went to work Edinburgh in September 1956 where many of his street shots are set. In 1965 he met Jane, the love of his life. After she graduated in History of Art, Jane moved back to London to continue a post-graduate course at the Courtauld Institute Of Art. “This was towards the end of my studies and I made frequent short trips from Edinburgh travelling by plane to visit her (getting stand-by flight tickets for £2.50 each way!)”. Work took him back to London in 1967, where he took up a post in Casualty at St Stephens Hospital in London.
The couple went on to have three sons, William, Edward and George. His photography slowed down a bit by now. “While I did cut back I didn’t really stop. Other things also distracted me: music, parenthood, Jane… Jane saw the photos more than anyone else.”
Says William of growing up: “He just had a camera around his neck all the time and we were just used to him snapping away so we almost didn’t notice it. The only time we did was when he would suddenly stop the car because he had seen something he wanted to capture – he would leap out, get the shot, jump back in and we’d be off again. We just groaned “
By the early 70s Robert had shifted exclusively to colour. “Adding colour created a whole new dimension for me. I lost the restrictions of black and white prints but I didn’t try and analyse what I was doing. I just liked looking at things and taking photos of them; I suppose I was just very visually aware.”
“I felt colour liberated me from being stuck in the dark room and it also “liberated” the bath from being used as a place to wash the prints! And because I had no idea how to print in colour it was easy to just send off the films to Kodak! With a projector I would do slide shows in the evening for the family and sometimes friends.”
Nature and family just became increasingly important subjects. “The family portraits reflected this,” says William, “Even though they are family shots they still show his sense of humour, always quick off the mark to capture an amusing snap of his kids doing something funny!
Change of direction
“I decided around this time I should stop B&W and go into photographing family and nature in colour. I stopped the street photography because I felt I’d done enough of that and I’d sort of lost interest in capturing totally random street scenes and being ‘nosey’! I felt I had enough yellow cardboard boxes by now and just wanted a change. I also really wanted to capture more shots of nature as I realised I’d done very little of this so far.”
In 1999 Robert had to give up his photography and his career as a doctor after a stroke left him paralysed down one side. Having moved to Hebden Bridge in 1985, he retired here, at home in the Yorkshire Pennines, and set down his camera. Jane had already begun the daunting and painstaking process of cataloguing and digitising his work. “Over time I became more aware of the quality of my work. Jane pointed this out to me, she was always remarking on their quality, how good they were. She was very supportive.” In 2008, tragedy struck and Jane passed away, leaving a huge hole in the family. The job of archiving and preserving those images now falls to his brother and three sons. They have released the 50s already: a collection that forms the basis of an exhibition at Edinburgh City Arts Centre. The 60s, 70s and 80s are a treasure trove still waiting to be revealed.
To see more of Robert Blomfield’s shots, head to his instagram page: @robertblomfield
Meet Robert Blomfield and hear more about his passion for photography in this short video…