It was J.’s idea to go. I would have missed it, or should I say, overlooked it, as I walk past there all the time. However, whilst I like to think I take in my surroundings, it seems I’m beginning to become blind to what’s in front of me. It was a photography exhibition in City Arts Centre, opposite Waverley station. That spot in town for the drop-offs and pick-ups – trains, airport buses, taxis – not somewhere to linger, but I’m glad I did linger there for a few hours. I’d never heard of him, and apparently not many of us have, as he – Robert Blomfield – spent his working life as a full-time doctor, but used every spare moment he had to take photographs. Street photography was his forte – in this case, the streets of Edinburgh in the late fifties and early sixties when he stayed here as a university medical student. I didn’t count, though I would say there are about fifty photographs, all of them compelling and beautiful and personal. Properly dirty children, who look like they have been rolling in mud, playing in an inner tyre tube on the street. Two wee girls with long socks and tartan skirts, handknit jumpers and shoes with buckles, sitting on a tenement step. A couple of old women on a park bench eating sandwiches, one with her legs splayed, immune to own her inelegance, and pigeons in the foreground waiting for the spoils. There is one he must have taken whilst lying cheek down on the cobblestones so close is the ground, tenement blocks rising darkly from the wet stone and the volcanic Crags rising out of the driech in the background. A picture of a winding path in Dean Village has, unusually, no one in it, save for an old fashioned pram illuminated by a shaft of low winter sun. One of the larger photographs is of about fifty rambunctious, pushing and shoving students, all men, voluminous hair in quiffs and flicks and Teddy Boy rolls, roaring at the hustings for the ‘rectoral election’.
Accompanying the exhibition is a short film featuring the photographer, now an old man in a wheelchair, lop-sided smile and slow speech from a stroke, though I’ll wager he always spoke gently and slowly and thoughtfully. His house is gloriously cluttered with photos and paintings and artefacts and books and pottery. It is a refreshing antidote to the Marie Kondo trend towards cold, empty minimalist, clean-lined shrines. I love his organised clutter; the drawers spilling over with photographs, shoeboxes bursting with slides, and cupboards filled with negatives. It is a house stuffed full of love and memory and dedication and creativity; a testament to a long, well lived life. In the film, his chair is always oriented to the window, those sparking blue searching eyes constantly looking out to see what’s there to be captured. I think it is the first time I have fully appreciated the art of photography, not least because Blomfield described it in such an artless way: “It’s as though they were put there for me. I didn’t have to set the stage; the stage set itself. All I had to do was use the camera. It was a doddle.” He giggled. But he was there; watching, looking, waiting – alert and alive to all of the resplendence of the daily grime and grind, never blind to what was in front of him, like everyone else who took no notice and walked on.
Children feature in about half of the photographs. He says that often when children saw him with a camera they would run up to him, “Hey Mister, take me photograph.” I think about issues of consent today, how we are so careful about where we point the camera and I feel a sense of loss. His brother speaks, remembering that he used to ask him, “Why the heck are you doing this?” Later, the answer comes as Robert thumbs through sheaves of photographs and thinks aloud, “It is close to my heart. Maybe it is my heart. It is a form of love. I love the photographs. I love the people. These people don’t realise they have been immortalised.” I take another turn around the room: 1957, 1963, 1960. Lots of these people will still be alive and living here in Edinburgh. I look about me and want someone to gasp as they recognise themselves, their sister, their father, their grandmother. I want it to happen. I want them to know the photographer loves them, for I have no doubt as to the truth of it.
We see some beautiful photographs of his wife: she’s rowing a boat; she’s in the dunes with a toddler; she’s lying in the meadow with a baby. When he speaks of her he says simply, “I loved her,”then he cries. “Let’s not get maudlin,”his son says, reaching across to hold him by the shoulder.
The first night of my honeymoon was spent in the village of Carnlough on the east Antrim coast of Northern Ireland. We were getting an early boat from Larne the next morning to drive to the Scottish Highlands, so a stay in the pretty town on the edge of the Glens of Antrim would give us a head start in the morning. It was close to 11pm when we took a walk along the harbour wall; that magic time of the year when the late night gloaming keeps the sky from ever darkening. Five wee boys, maybe 10 or 11 years old, were still up, roaming free on their summer holidays. We were taking photographs of each other and turning the camera out to sea when one of them shouted, “Mister, take one of us.” It was all high jinks, children high on life and cans of energy drink. “Line up, so,”K. commanded them like a Sergeant Major, “I’m only taking it on the condition that you take one of us when we’re done.” The reciprocal pictures were taken and I have no idea who those five wee boys were, but that photograph of them and the one they took of us are quite possibly two of my favourite photos in the whole world. I rarely post photographs of people on my blog, but Robert Blomfield has prompted me to break my rule.
The exhibition is on until St Patrick’s Day, you should go if you can. For those of you whose name isn’t Murphy, McSorley or the like, that’s March 17th.
Fountain of Sorrow, by Jackson Browne
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true
You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.