WHEN 18-year-old Robert Blomfield pitched up at the University of Edinburgh in 1956 to learn how to become a doctor, his most treasured possession wasn’t a shiny new stethoscope or a pristine copy of Gray’s Anatomy or any of the other bits of kit a medical student required for their studies back then. It was his camera.

For the decade Blomfield spent studying and working in Edinburgh he never went anywhere without it. “It became a thing he always had,” says younger brother Johnny Blomfield, who has acted as spokesman and unofficial archivist for Robert since he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1999. “He had it handy all the time, wherever he went, whether he was at a lecture or a dance. It became a habit to just photograph what was going on around him. He was always on the look out, and if things cropped up, he’d just snap it.”

The result is an astonishing archive of thousands of images of life in the capital in the late 1950s and early 1960s – shot, in the best traditions of street photography, quickly, instinctively and as unobtrusively as possible, and then printed and developed by Blomfield himself in his makeshift bedsit dark-room.

Now, half a century on, the fruit of that extra-curricular activity will finally be seen in the city whose life it records when an exhibition of Blomfield’s work opens at the City Art Centre.

Featuring around 60 black and white images, the show portrays a city at once familiar yet also unrecognisable. Enthralled by the play of light on the forbidding tenements, Blomfield sought to capture Edinburgh’s architectural majesty in much the same way as today’s visitors chase down Instagram-friendly images with their smartphones.

But his images also show a city which has since vanished. He shot historic streets which were about to be demolished to make way for new housing, such as the vertiginous Arthur Street, which once ran down to Holyrood Park from Pleasance. He captured rituals such as the university’s annual (and often violent) Rectorial battle, which pitched supporters of rival candidates against each other and took place in the Old College quadrangle until it was discontinued in the early 1970s. He froze in time moments such as a young boy straddling a cannon on Calton Hill, a smoke-filled university canteen filled with duffel coat-wearing students bent over coffee cups and the aftermath of a car crash on Queen Street (complete with disapproving-looking policemen and crumpled Jaguar).

He also photographed scenes and vignettes which now seem charmingly anachronistic. One of the show’s most striking images shows two middle-aged women in headscarves talking on a street corner in the West End. So far so mundane. But what makes the shot extraordinary is the pair of dead chickens lying on the pavement between them, ready to picked up, taken home and cooked – but not before they’ve been plucked.

“He wasn’t trying to capture change,” says Johnny Blomfield. “He didn’t realise, as nobody did then, how much things were going to change. He just enjoyed going out and photographing anything that interested him. He had a penchant for massive buildings with tiny people around – kids completely swamped by buildings. That struck him as bizarre. But he seemed to have a good eye for shapes and combinations of people and the environment. But there was no real agenda other than an urge to record. Some people keep a diary, he just kept photographing where he’d been and what he’d done.”

Born the eldest of five children in Sheffield in 1938, Robert Blomfield caught the photography bug from his father, a surgeon and pioneering radio-therapist who had trained as an engineer and was fascinated by telescopes and cameras. He had his own dark-room and it was there that Robert learned how to develop and print. To him, that was as important and integral a part of the photographic process as taking the original picture. “There were no two sides to it, it was one thing,” says Johnny Blomfield. “He never sent his stuff off to Boots to be printed. He did it all on his own.”

By the age of 15 photography had become an obsession, to the point where Blomfield was subscribing to the venerable Amateur Photographer magazine and using his father’s camera – an ex-Luftwaffe Zeiss Contax II, complete with Swastika – to document life at Repton, the Derbyshire boarding school he and his brothers attended. He shot hundreds of images there, but it wasn’t until he moved to Edinburgh that his pictures acquired what Johnny Blomfield refers to as their “punch”. He inter-changed the Zeiss Contax II with a Leica, whose size and discreet shutter noise was better suited to street photography, and later acquired a Nikon S.

Two constants, however, were Blomfield’s cheekiness (a much-needed quality if you’re routinely sticking your camera in strangers’ faces) and his gleeful disregard for authority.

“If he saw a sign saying Keep Out he’d go: ‘That must be interesting, let’s go and have a look in there’,” says Johnny Blomfield. “There’s a lovely picture he took of the Dounreay power station and it’s a big notice saying No Photography Allowed. He took pleasure in cocking a snook at notices like that. He was just cheeky, basically, and that was the way he went about life generally. He didn’t think things through before doing them and got into scrapes.”

Johnny Blomfield saw that cheek and anti-authoritarianism at first hand on several occasions, such as when he joined his brother on an excursion to South Queensferry to photograph the Forth Road Bridge while it was under construction in 1962.

“We went over it in the dark. We just climbed over the corrugated iron fence. The Keep Out sign was there – it was like a red rag to a bull – and went over and up the walkway right to the middle of the span of the Forth and then back again, at around midnight. It was pure cheek.”

The latest photographs in the exhibition are from 1966, the year Blomfield left Edinburgh. After graduating in medicine he worked initially in accident and emergency departments in hospitals around the UK but eventually went into general practice in Wrexham. After 1966, his photography changed too. He began using more and more colour and in 1968 stopped shooting on black and white entirely. Then, in 1970, he switched to colour slides and stopped developing and printing his own work.

The flow of images continued, however. About half of everything he shot he printed and Johnny Blomfield is in the process of digitising those images. He doesn’t know how many there are but thousands is his best guess, along with “a mountain” of slides. So far, he has digitised the Edinburgh images as well as a few from London and Sheffield. The project is ongoing.

Given Robert Blomfield’s passion for the medium and his instinctual skill as a street photographer in the mould of his heroes Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, it seems odd that he never took it up professionally. Did he ever consider it?

“He nearly did switch from the day job to photography,” says Johnny Blomfield, “but it didn’t work out.”

The chance came when a family friend of a family friend – a certain poet by the name of John Betjeman – was looking for a photographer to illustrate a book he was writing about Victorian markets.

“Robert was suggested as a possible photographer. He very excitedly went around photographing markets in Sheffield and Leeds and produced some wonderful shots of people, though not much architecture. It wasn’t what Betjeman wanted at all. So, he just carried on the with the medicine and taking the pictures he wanted to take.”

John Betjeman’s loss was medicine’s gain. But, as the new exhibition demonstrates, British street photography too was poorer as a result.

Robert Blomfield: Edinburgh Street Photography – An Unseen Archive opens at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh on Saturday (until March 17, 2019).