The student union in the Teviot Building, 1964

Written by

Learning from the student of light

minutes reading time

Robert Blomfield's photos of post-war Edinburgh capture a city filled with light and life. Now housed at the University, his rich archive provides a snapshot of a changeable time when the old and the new slipped in and out of the shadows.

Spellbinding images that capture a city in the midst of momentous change are being exhibited for the first time.

Scenes of Edinburgh in the 1950s and 60s, taken by acclaimed street photographer Robert Blomfield, are on display at the university where he studied and honed his artistic talent, and where his archive is now housed.

Robert Blomfeild: Student of Light will be the first presentation of the late photographer’s work since a blockbuster show at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre four years ago.

City of shadows

Blomfield was completely unknown prior to the 2018 show, but the beauty and significance of his work immediately struck chords. Now an exhibition at the University of Edinburgh – the first to feature his colour photography – looks set to enhance his blossoming reputation.

The show, in the University’s Main Library, will have a particular focus on Blomfield’s time as a student. The exhibition also showcases some of Blomfield’s camera equipment, including lenses, enlargers, filters and an astronomical telescope used to achieve far depths of field.

Blomfield came to Edinburgh to study medicine in 1956 and found himself in a city full of light and shadow, and a University bursting with post-war enthusiasm and vigour.

He took a camera with him almost everywhere, even into class, producing shots of lectures, labs and student life that are unique in their access and their composition.

Students gather in Old College during Suez Crisis in 1956
Students gather in Old College during Suez Crisis in 1956

Although a dedicated student, Blomfield took eight years to complete a six-year degree, and he stayed on after his graduation in 1964 to start as a junior doctor at the Royal Infirmary.

His student life was filled with friendships, Rectorial battles, jazz concerts, and quiet moments in the Student Union. Blomfield’s camera stayed with him almost everywhere he went – across the city, into homes, and on his trips into the Scottish countryside.

Through his lens, we meet fellow students and medics, children at play, shopkeepers and public speakers and feel the vibrancy of a city undergoing social and architectural change.

Shifting landscape

The city’s character helped shape his photographic eye, funnelling light into a dark alley, sitting low across the horizon or shining murkily through the fog. He learned to use the buildings and the streets of Edinburgh to frame his subjects – and these were changing.

A Civic Survey and Plan, published in January 1949, envisaged motorways being driven through Edinburgh’s historic centre and all existing buildings on Princes Street demolished.

Also on the cards was the complete clearance of Leith, Gorgie and Dalry to create industrial zones, redevelopment of the Canongate and a freight railway under the Meadows.

Children on scaffolding
Children play on scaffolding on India Place, Edinburgh

As well as sweeping architectural changes – the construction of the Forth Road Bridge and the demolition of parts of the Old Town – it is Blomfield’s eye for detail that enchants the viewer.

Intimate portraits reveal a world that has all but vanished: the censorious stare of the Morningside matron; a trio of doctors – in collars and ties, their sleeves rolled up – carrying out a surgical procedure; and, almost everywhere, the ghost of Auld Reekie’s smoky breath.

Makeshift dark room

Born in Leeds and raised in Sheffield, Blomfield’s lifelong pursuit of photography was sparked when he received his first camera on his 15th birthday. From the start, he applied the advice of Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

“In this exhibition,” says curator Daryl Green, “you will encounter Edinburgh through Robert’s lens, from when he first stepped off the train platform in Waverley station through to the late 1960s.

“These photographs reveal how he developed his eye and his skills in the darkroom and how he became a student of light.”

Blomfield preferred to remain behind the lens and capture what was happening around him on the street or in the classroom. However, he had a gregarious side, and many of his portrait subjects are clearly disarmed and mid-laugh.

The second and less appreciated part of a photographic life is his darkroom work, where the raw images taken on the street and in the field are transformed through light and fixed to chemically sensitive paper.

Robert Blomfield grew up helping his father in his makeshift darkroom in the scullery of the family home. As he began shooting more in Edinburgh, he gathered the kit that he needed to transform his student flats into his own laboratory

Forth Road Bridge, through telescope, 1965
Forth Road Bridge, through telescope, 1965

By the mid-1960s, Blomfield was seen regularly with two cameras around his neck. Most often, both cameras were loaded with black and white film and fitted with two different lenses but he would occasionally shoot colour film too.

“Although he had experimented with colour since his school days, it wasn’t a regular part of his repertoire,” says Mr Green. “Colour film was more expensive and had to be sent off to a lab to be developed and when the slides returned, Robert never enlarged them to prints himself.”

Most of Blomfield’s colour work veered towards landscapes and distant shots, and also of his mountain adventures. When he did turn his colour film to people, he captured the same vibrancy in character and dynamic lighting that he achieved in his black and white work.

Archival home

Still taking photographs until his last days, Blomfield died in December 2020. Despite this never-ending passion, his photography remained largely unseen throughout his life.

His archive of original prints, film, and colour slides from Scotland were deposited in the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections in late 2021.

“The fact that Robert’s work remained relatively unknown for almost 60 years is astounding to me,” says Mr Green, who is also Co-Director of the Centre for Research Collections.

“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.

“As his vast archive slowly comes into light, it is clear that Robert was Edinburgh’s quiet answer to Glasgow’s Oscar Marzaroli, to Paris’s Brassaï.”

Robert Blomfield: Student of Light, is supported by the Scottish Funding Council. It takes place from 6 May to 1 October at the University of Edinburgh Main Library.