“The eye is the organ through which you see the picture. The image…This mysterious entity, or non-entity, are what dreams are made of.” So began the short film by Stuart Edwards titled, “Robert Blomfield: An Unseen Eye.” That film produced within me a deep admiration for a photographer I had never met, nor heard of until then. And it wasn’t just because of the extraordinary photos Robert Blomfield shot and developed over the years. It was also because of his deep connection with photography and what that meant to him.
Robert said about photography, “I think it’s a form of love. You should love the picture. I love the photographs. I sort of love the people. It’s a lovely thing.” By my estimates, it would seem that what made photography a labor of love for Robert had less to do with the actual process of making a photograph, and more to do with the people and places he shot, and the resulting images and memories.
He said that when he looks over his collection of images, it brings to mind all those good memories, the pride of having taken a good photograph and then a curiosity about the people he captured – Where are they now? What happened to them? When asked why he never sought out recognition for his work, Robert simply said, “I didn’t think about it.”
The more I look at the works of master photographers, including Robert’s, the more it becomes clear to me that while knowing your way around a camera is important, what really makes street photography beautiful is a love for people, an appreciation for life, and probably a healthy dose of good humor too. While Stuart Edward’s film addressed Robert’s feelings towards his images and his family’s efforts to organize his archives, I was still left with a few questions about Robert’s life and photography. Fortunately for me, Robert’s son Will agreed to speak with me about his father’s photographic legacy. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Your uncle said that your dad’s whole life was through the viewfinder, from around age 13. How did your dad get started with photography?
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. From this apprenticeship, my dad began to borrow his father’s camera (a Zeiss Contax II) and take and then develop photos of his own. It was something he apparently took to very quickly and he seemed to have a natural eye for a good shot. He was rewarded for his efforts with his own (second hand) 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.
It’s clear that for your dad photography was a labor of love – do you think that’s why he never bothered to get any recognition? Do you think that perspective made his work better?
That’s a good question. The more I’ve delved into his archive the more I appreciate just how good these photographs are. It amazes me that he didn’t do more with them, by which I mean, show them off more or use them commercially, but at the same time I think that’s part of their charm. They are all the more impressive for their innocence – there was no agenda behind any of the photos, no assignment, no brief – just the simple desire to take a great photo, look at it, and then store it away. So, in a way, yes, I think that makes the archive more impressive. He was truly an “amateur photographer”, just a really good one!
I’m curious though, your dad said your mom was a great supporter, someone who believed in his work. Maybe that’s all the recognition he needed? How did your mom support your dad’s photography specifically?
I really don’t think he needed any recognition at all, it just wasn’t like that, although like anyone else I’m sure he enjoyed it when someone complemented a photo he’d taken. The difference with my mum (Jane) was that she was a graduate of art historian, and worked briefly in that field at the Courtauld Institure of Art. So, she really had an artistic eye, albeit in a slightly different way. She saw parallels in his composition with the way that some of the great artists composed their paintings. It sounds a bit pretentious, or even cheesy to say that, but you really can see it in some of his photos, like “Snowstorm on the Meadows”, they’re almost like paintings. My mum saw this and encouraged him to see his work as “art” too. My mum was actually pretty good with a camera too and they sometimes went out shooting photos together. Some of her shots from the mid-60s are really pretty good too. She was also becoming his muse – he took a lot of lovely shots of her throughout their time together but I really like the black and white shots.
Later on, after my dad had his stroke and therefore wasn’t take photos any more, she was the one trying to get him the recognition she felt he deserved. The trouble is, she didn’t really know how to go about it and so the project never really got any traction.
What she did do, which in retrospect was a bit of a game changer, was she had some of his prints scanned and reproduced digitally. It seems an obvious thing to do now, but back then, in the early 2000s that was quite a leap for people from an “analogue” generation. This meant we could now start to email his photos around, although it was still hard work and no-one seemed very interested in “street photography’ at that time so there was quite a lot of rejection to deal with, which must have been disheartening for her.
But her passion for his work did leave a lasting impression on me, and my brothers. We started to take more note, whereas previously we were quite disinterested – we had grown up with slideshows and photos all around us, our dad always with a camera around his neck so even though we knew other people liked them, we never thought of them as anything other than “Dad’s photos”. Gradually though her message got through to us – these are really great images and his work is something to be celebrated! Our mum passed away in 2011 but my brothers and I have got the bit between our teeth now, to carry on her project and see how far we can go in showcasing his work. I hope she’d be proud of what we’ve managed to achieve so far – a record-breaking exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh and now a “coffee-table” photo-book, with more irons in the fire too…
Your dad said he is a shy person and the camera gave him the excuse to go places he wouldn’t have otherwise. It also says on the website that he got close to many of his subjects thanks to his “engaging manner and healthy disrespect of authority.” Sounds to me that he was shy, but capable of discreet boldness – excellent qualities for a street photographer. Do you have any interesting or funny anecdotes about his explorations?
I have a couple that spring to mind. The first is a well-worn family tale of how he and his brother Johnny decided to scale the heights of the Forth Road Bridge that was under construction at the time (this was in the early 1960s). Urban exploring we would call it today. They ignored the various KEEP OUT signs and gradually climbed up the pylons that supported the roadway until they reached the very top. They were both keen climbers so had a decent head for heights, which you would certainly need for a mission like this. He didn’t take any photos on this particular expedition since it was at night but his many photographs of the road bridge around that time could be considered a memento of that little night-time raid.
Another more personal recollection is from when I was working at BT’s research and development site as a recent graduate entry. This site was quite secure since there was a lot of commercially sensitive work going on there but every year they held a family open day where they showed off some of their technology to employee spouses, children etc. I invited my parents along and inevitably my dad brought his camera. There were signs up everywhere – NO PHOTOGRAPHY – but Dad couldn’t help himself and as usual took photos of the things that caught his eye, until a security guy came up to him and asked who he was with and I had to admit he was with me. It was very embarrassing at the time! I haven’t seen those photos recently but with the benefit of hindsight, I bet they’re actually quite funny.
In Stuart Edward’s film, your uncle described your dad as someone who went out to observe with no expectations, but always ready for whatever happened around him. Is he like that in regular life – outside of photography?
Now that everyone carries their phones with them everywhere and these phones invariably have a high quality built-in camera it’s funny to think that being ready to take the shot ALL the time used to be unusual. Or at least, it was unusual for “normal” people. In our family life, it wasn’t unusual – Dad ALWAYS had a camera, usually around his neck or next to him in the car. It was a standard experience to be driving along and then suddenly we screech to a halt, he would jump out, capture a shot of whatever it was that caught his attention, a funny road sign or an amazing sunset, and then he’d hop back in and drive off.This spontaneity was also there in other aspects of his life. He would often just hop on his bicycle and pedal off on a whim, disappearing for hours. I think it often drove my mum mad! When he was a medical student he got on his bike and just cycled off and ended up in Turkey – I don’t think he ever planned to get that far, I don’t think he even told his tutors he was going. I guess he was pretty naïve to how his actions might be seen by others.
Have any of the subjects from your dad’s images seen their image and gotten in touch with your family?
Yes, they have! We had quite a lot of people get in touch with us as a direct result of his Edinburgh exhibition. They either recognised themselves in the photos or someone they knew or were related to. It was really lovely to hear these stories coming out and which add a whole new dimension to the photos. We’ve actually collated them and they’re included in an appendix the forthcoming book of his Edinburgh photos.
Does anyone else in your family share a passion for photography?
Yes! I’m the eldest of Robert’s 3 sons and we each have an interest in, and an appreciation of, a “good photo” but my youngest brother, Ed, has turned this into a profession. He’s worked in action sports (snowboarding) for a number of years, initially in writing and editing, but he’s gradually migrated into becoming a freelance photographer. So, in a strange way he’s returning to the roots of Dad’s photography – capturing interesting things moving at high speed. I hope Ed won’t mind me saying his modern digital camera makes things a lot easier though – haha!
What does having a photographic “record of Robert’s life” mean to you as his son?
This question makes me think quite hard… It feels funny to reflect on the photos as a “record of his life” when he’s still alive. But he is pretty old and frail now and won’t be around forever so I feel quite motivated to talk to him, while he’s still around, to try and understand why he took all these photos and what he was thinking of at the time. It’s like piecing together an oral history to go with the photographic history. I never really paid much attention to the photos before, it would be like discussing the wallpaper, they were just always “there” in the background. But now I see them for what they are, amazing works of art, and I really want his talent to be recognised, preferably while he’s still around to receive the accolades we think he deserves.
In a similar vein, your dad said photography is close to his heart, that maybe it is his heart, it’s so deep in him. That’s really moving, it’s like you get to see a small piece of your dad’s heart every time you look at his images. What have you learned about your dad through his images?
I’ve only ever done a small amount of black and white film photography but when you do it really makes you appreciate just how hard work it is. With film you have to pretty confident it’s going to be worth pressing the shutter otherwise it’s an expensive, wasted opportunity. But dad was a sniper, who almost never missed and that leaves me a bit in awe. I really want his photographic legacy to live on so I often talk to my kids about his photos, we might discuss a particular image of his or what makes a “good photo”. I’m really happy that they’re not as dis-interested in his work as I was when I was their age. They seem to appreciate his skill far more than I did. My son has even picked up an old Nikon SLR that my dad gave me years ago and he’s started taking a few shots (and now he’s starting to realise how hard it is too!)
One aspect of my dad that I think comes through very strongly in many of his shots is his humour. He has always had a very good sense of humour and when he combined this with his photographic talent, he could create a photo that just makes you laugh out loud. My mum had a collection of what she called his “funnies” – there are some real classics in there which go to show how he never missed an opportunity to capture the quirkiness of everyday life. And whether it was in his medicine or his photography, he really, deeply cared about people. I think Stu Edwards’ documentary captured that part of the story so well – although his photos are often of random people and situations he encountered everywhere he went, in each shot there is a little bit of him in there as well. I think we’ll always treasure that.
Stu Edward’s Film – Robert Blomfield: An Unseen Eye
Editor’s Note: Shortly after the completion of this article, and just hours before publication, Robert’s family reached out to us and let us know Robert passed away early on the morning of December 15, 2020. Our hearts break for Robert’s family and we offer them our sincere condolences along with the rest of the Street Photography Magazine community. We consider it a privilege and an honor to be able to share this small selection of Robert’s photos along with some of his words and thoughts on his craft. Robert has inspired and will continue to inspire us, his fellow photographers, in the years to come.