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PHOTOGRAPHY Universal images of empathy

ANGUS REID is struck by the humanity in Robert Blomfield's great street photography of Edinburgh and its people

A BOY sits astride a cannon, slightly askew. The vista beyond is Edinburgh’s Princes Street, punctuated by towers, the tall symbols of male authority and power.

The photographer lines up the barrel in the centre of the composition to emphasise its dominance but the boy looks uncertain and vulnerable with this phallic symbol between his legs. This is as much a disconcerting image of puberty as it is an icon of Edinburgh.

Welcome to the arresting and provocative world of Robert Blomfield, as revealed in his book Edinburgh 1957-1966.

The street photographer is a paradox. He is a presence that must efface himself in order to reveal the world and the instant that he captures is both ordinary and unrepeatably universal.

Among those who popularised humanist photography or poetic realism were the great French photographers Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier Bresson and Brassai (Gyula Halasz), who established the language of strikingly composed and disarmingly spontaneous black-and-white visions of cities and their people. It is a revelation that post-war Britain produced their equal in Blomfield.

Street photography needs, it seems, to be driven by fearless opportunism and a young man’s passion. If Blomfield is different it is because, a medical doctor, he never made photography his profession. In his modesty, he is the purest exponent of this powerful school but unlike his famous contemporaries he preserves its innocence.

Doisneau, under the pressure to produce images, admitted to faking his well-known masterpiece Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville (The Kiss by the Town Hall). Blomfield never used his art for money and the pay-off is that you never doubt the truthfulness of his images.

Blomfield had only one exhibition in his lifetime, in 2018 at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. He died in December 2020 aged 82. He never published an image or accepted a commission. His unexpected oeuvre appears only now.

The work that is available covers black and white series made in Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London from 1952 – 1966, and a colour series from Glastonbury in 1970/71. The Edinburgh work, the most complete of the city portraits, was made as Blomfield studied for a degree in Medicine, and is published as a handsome large-scale book.

This is an Edinburgh that the city chooses to forget, before slum clearances and gentrification, when the minister preached on the Mound and the poor kids played in the street. Each composition is equally a mixture of social history, anthropology and art.

As in Doisneau, the sense is that the marginalised community of children are the heartbeat of the city and that humanity is to be found among the working-class communities.

But, unlike Doisneau, Blomfield doesn’t sentimentalise them. Prams, parked at every corner, are a frequent stage for drama and while there are sweet games and conversations, the streetscapes are forbidding.

The children stare back from around their parents’ shoulders with piercing harshness. A boy in sandals and tartan trousers lies face down on the pavement, holding his head, as though thrown down a flight of steps. What happened?

Alongside the kids are adults. The women are like characters from a Philip Larkin poem — “old-style folk in hats and coats” — and the men, mostly working class, either play up for the camera or seem isolated and helpless. Are these adults fit to bring up children, one wonders.

It’s no coincidence that the painter Joan Eardley was also studying slum children with similar compassion in Glasgow, a decade in advance of social science and social services. Images such as Blomfield’s and Eardley’s raise universal concerns and sound the alarm.

The book concludes with reactions to the images a lifetime later and it is very moving that one girl identified her own portrait and recalled an abused childhood that can now, thankfully, be spoken about openly.

But Blomfield is anything but a depressing documentarist. He is witty, light-hearted and playful. If he has an instinctive feel for composition, he also has the surrealist’s knack for a good joke. He brings together opposites and incongruities in ways that make you laugh.

On the steps of the Royal Academy we see people eating, waiting and kissing all in simultaneous groups. Scaffolding, populated by men, towers up untethered to any building like a giant game of Meccano. The abstract concrete legs of the Forth Road bridge step gingerly over rooftops and smoking chimneys. A flat-capped man, a pipe clenched between toothless gums, listens sceptically to a preacher.

In Robert Blomfield, it was not just Edinburgh but post-war Britain that found an artist, a visual poet and a humanist who was its equal.

Published by Bluecoat Press, £28.

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