There is something unavoidably alluring about amateur photography. Is it the eye of the photographer, or is it the photographic eye of an ordinary observer? A camera picked up unintentionally to steal stories from the everyday of society – stories that eventually may or may not be told. One such observer was Robert Blomfield, a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, and a practising lover of street photography. His ‘Unseen Archive,’ now being very much seen at the City Art Centre, tells a mesmerising tale of Edinburgh as it flourished through the dramatic shifts of a post-war period. It is difficult to generically categorise his work for it is neither documentary nor journalistic in its approach. It isn’t entirely romantic either, but is as indecisive as the shutter on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s camera. The virtue of Blomfield’s photographs lies in their perfect oscillation between expressing the external world that he was a witness to and the consciousness that was inherent to that world.
It wasn’t until last year that his family began to catalogue and digitise his archive. The man himself has retired, and City Art Centre does an impressively good job in bringing to surface works of observers like Blomfield. But it is the quality of their curation that disappoints us, and above all the hefty price on that cheap quality. From a careful observation of the photographs, one can deduce how instead of scanning the original negatives, the photographs in print have been scanned and blown up to a size that the quality cannot manage. These grainy digital prints, which prove to be almost unfair to the standard of work that Blomfield produced, are then being sold for unimaginable prices. Painting or sculpture would not suffer through such problems in curation, precisely due to the nature of their processes but also because ample research has been done in the development and presentation of these ‘higher arts.’ The history of art has entirely written photography out of itself, even though the medium has played a crucial role in the artistic evolution. Lost talents waiting to be discovered, and the ignorant approach to curation of their works, is enough proof of how more needs to be done in developing the discipline of photography, in comparison to others that find their identity in the broad definition of art today.
What kind of position then, can someone writing on photography take? Especially, if its history is so inconsiderably defined, and the discipline itself is grounded in a liminal space between art and commerce. We can talk about photographs, we can take them and make them, we use them loosely as documents of the artistic process, or even as icons that accommodate our memories. We are all amateurs with an eye for photography and greatly fascinated by it, but when the question arises to assign an artistic value to a photograph, or curate a body of work by a photographer, the art world just doesn’t know what to do. The wall of a gallery is reserved for something else. Photographs are abandoned in books, or the unexamined digital archives of our hard drives; works of others like Robert Blomfield will remain hidden in shoeboxes unless more is done.
Image: Carlos Finlay