W G Sebald's novel, Austerlitz
(2001), is a beautiful meditation on time, history and memory, with great contemporary resonance. Austerlitz, saved by the Kindertransport effort, rekindles suppressed memories through architectural wanderings and research. Austerlitz is able to piece together the lost years of his life by visiting museums and archives across Europe. Such archives play a vital role in preserving material whose value only becomes apparent over time.
The case of Robert Blomfield's photographs illustrates how rich and important collections can come close to extinction. For several decades, Blomfield's fabulous photos lay around his house, hidden in cupboards and boxes. His house was 'exploding with photos', an 'exciting but worrying' situation for any archivist, given the volatile character of film and negatives. A selection of this treasure trove only met the public eye in 2018.
The 2018 exhibition was the 'jumping off point' for discussions as to how the archive could best be preserved. A large portion of Blomfield's archive is now held by the university, reflecting his years there as a medical student (1956-64). Blomfield captured a number of major events at the university (rectoral battles in the Old College Quad, debates over Suez), doing so with a street photographer's eye. In this way, he captured the lived experience of student life far better than the official university photographs of that era.
This archive is currently being examined, contextualised and digitised by a team led by Daryl Green, head of special collections at the university. The collection includes a mass of material, including over 2,000 rolls of film. A selection of these superb photos are currently on display at Edinburgh University's Main Library.
During his university days and his time working at the Royal Infirmary, Blomfield honed his photographic skills on the streets of Edinburgh, often taking his camera 'where he shouldn't have gone'. He has left us a fantastic legacy of superb pictures borne of a craftsman's eye. The city was Blomfield's 'training ground', where he experimented with different approaches. The character of the city, with its interesting light and unique features helped form him as a photographer.
Robert Blomfield's major exhibition at the City Arts Centre in 2018 was hugely successful, receiving praise from critics and members of the public. Especially heartwarming was the fact that Blomfield received the attention and praise he deserved before he died (in 2020).
The 2018 exhibition fed into the online trend for 'lost Edinburgh'. While some of this represents over-rosy nostalgia, it has also initiated a growing richness to the city's history. It's helping to shift the focus away from the tourist sites towards the Edinburgh actually experienced by those who live here. Blomfield's photos have enriched our understanding of the city and the changes it has undergone.
A shot of Edinburgh at sunset in 1960 captures the smoky, industrial city that Edinburgh was at the time. Similarly, a photo of Portsburgh Square (West Port) illustrates the grimness of much of the Old Town of that era: a city of shadows and dark recesses.
Many of the photos in the 2018 exhibition were of Stockbridge, including streets (such as Saunders Street and India Street) which were subsequently demolished. A fate suffered by many streets in Dumbiedykes/St Leonards, also captured by Blomfield's lens. These areas are now unrecognisable. A sense of regret pervaded many of these photos; of the architecture and communities swept away. The photos of shabby Stockbridge streets also emphasised the way that this area has subsequently been transformed.
From a slightly marginal area beloved of the artistic community, it's now become one of the most fashionable and sought after areas of the city. Bloomfield's pictures capture a significant juncture, with 'urban renewal' about to begin in earnest.
These photos are far more than a glimpse of a lost Edinburgh and a city in flux. A shift symbolised by the building of the Forth Road Bridge, captured by Blomfield's lens. What gave them greater impact is the inherent quality of the photos, taken by someone with a true artistic eye. His ability to capture expressive faces in his photos is particularly noteworthy and is much in evidence in the examples exhibited here. The depth of focus Blomfield achieves in his 'noir' evening city scenes make clear his continental influences.
Insights into Blomfield's life are a nice aspect of the exhibition. The photo of his student 'digs' shows how central photography was to his existence, with photographic paraphernalia spread around the room. He spent much of his 'meagre funds' on photographic equipment. His student rooms (in Stockbridge, Morningside, Bread Street and elsewhere) would, it is said, be dominated by the 'distinctive smells' of the photographer: the developing fluids etc.
There are a selection of Blomfield's Nikon SLR cameras and other equipment. For Green, Blomfield's switch to the Nikon was a major 'technological jump' for Blomfield, improving the quality of his photos. Also on display is an astronomical telescope he experimented with at one point. A photo of Blomfield using this contraption brings out the playful side of his character. According to his sons, his laughter was infectious and this helped to put his photographic subjects at ease ('a smile goes a long way').
Above all, the exhibition demonstrated how easy it is for things of value to be lost. How many archives such as this have ended up in a skip? Such horror stories of careless attitudes haunt many institutions. Much credit must go to Blomfield's wife for encouraging him to publicly exhibit his photos. This baton was then taken up by his sons. The great care and attention they've shown towards his archive comes through in the excellent film (by Stuart Edwards) which accompanies the exhibition. It details the efforts made in cataloguing, preserving and digitising the collection.
A number of the interviews for the film were carried out in the same Teviot (Students' Union) room captured in one of Blomfield's most celebrated photos; one which demonstrated his masterful use of light. For the first time, this exhibition reveals some of Blomfield's colour photos. A shot of a pend in the Canongate has a filmic character, with dust and smoke adding a mysterious element.
It's heartening that Blomfield's archive is now being looked after by those with the expertise (and storage facilities), such as Edinburgh University. This accomplished exhibition, curated by Daryl Green, will surely not be the last of Blomfield's work put on by the university. Numerous gems will undoubtedly emerge as the collection is explored by archivists and other researchers.
There is a wealth of material that will feature in future exhibitions. Green is particularly excited about a fabulous set of pictures Blomfield took during an adventurous 1960 trip from Sheffield to India. This is a tremendous outcome, given how easily this wonderful collection could have been lost. It's further evidence of the value of archives and the need to find ways to store and exhibit them. The internet makes it possible for materials from such archives to be shared, but this is only possible if the archive survives and is maintained. A visit to this exhibition makes a great case for the importance of archives and archivists in our culture.
Robert Blomfield: Student of Light
runs at Edinburgh University Main Library Exhibition Gallery until 1 October 2022 (Monday to Saturday, 10am-4pm).
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh. He thanks Eva Vaporidi for her assistance with this piece and Daryl Green for his quoted comments