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 his time, these weren’t just casual snaps. Yet instead of publishing them for all to see, Robert showed his favourites to friends and family, then put them away in shoeboxes.

Hidden away

“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, 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 Smoking in Doorway’ shot.” Over the decades, close to 20,000 images were amassed in those boxes.

From around 1956, Robert used a small Leica 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 Denis Thorpe and Jane Bown. Other compositional influences were from paintings… classical paintings from the Renaissance, paintings of people by Manet, Cézanne, Bruegel.

“I felt my dad liked the photos but he 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.”

 “A lot of these photos, they were put there for me to take a photograph of,” insists Robert. “I didn’t have to set the stage – the stage set itself. The picture was presented in front of me. All I had to do was use the camera. It was a doddle.”

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 famous photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau were first beginning to define the street photography genre with their candid, intimate images. Their skilfully-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, Robert 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,” he recalls. After using just a 50mm lens for a couple of years, he 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 moved to Edinburgh to study medicine in 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 Robert back to London in 1967, where he took up a post at St Stephen’s Hospital. 

The couple went on to have three sons, William, Edward and George. His photography had slowed down a bit by now. “While I did cut back, I didn’t really stop,” he says. “Other things also distracted me: music, parenthood, Jane… Jane saw the photos more than anyone else."

Says his son William of growing up: “[My father] 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.”

“You just wouldn’t pay any attention to this normally but Robert was there. He was ready to take the picture all the time," says brother Johnny. "This is why he has this huge collection of wonderful shots. A lot of these people don’t realise they’ve been immortalised.”

Colour shift

By the early 1970s, Robert had shifted exclusively to colour. “Adding colour created a whole new dimension for me,” he recalls. “I lost the restrictions of black and white prints but I didn’t try to 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 darkroom, 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 evenings for the family and sometimes friends.”

Nature and family also 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 that I should stop doing black and white, and go into photographing family and nature in colour,” says Robert. “I stopped the street photography because I felt I’d done enough of that, and I’d sort of lost interest in capturing random street scenes and being ‘nosy’! 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, West Yorkshire, in 1985, he retired to 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,” he says. “Jane pointed this out to me, she was always remarking on their quality, how good they were. She was very supportive.”

In 2011, tragedy struck and Jane passed away, leaving a huge hole in the family. The job of archiving and preserving those images now falls to Robert’s brother and three sons. They have released the 1950s already: a collection that formed the basis of a recent exhibition at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre. The ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are a treasure trove still waiting to be revealed.

See more of Robert Blomfield’s shots here.

Meet Robert and learn more about his work...

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