Brian Coe 1930-2007

Brian Coe

Brian Coe

It is sad to have to report the death of Brian Coe on 18 October 2007. To anyone with an interest in the history of the technologies of cinematography or photography his work over four decades has been, and remains, indispensible. He joined Kodak in 1952, where he helped found its education service. He made a particular impact with his writings in the early 1960s which forensically overturned the romantic myths which had seen William Friese-Greene chauvinistically championed as a pioneer of cinematography.

He was Curator of the Kodak Museum from 1969 to 1984, building up the collection to be one of international renown, and curating many pioneering exhibitions. When the collection moved to the National Museum of Photography Film and Television in Bradford, Brian became Curator at the Royal Photographic Society’s collection in Bath. In 1989 he joined the Museum of the Moving Image as special events co-ordinator, organising shows, events and organisations on an extraordinary range of topics, all underpinned by exemplary research and presented with enthusiasm, finding a perfect balance between scholarship and entertainment.

At Kodak he built up not only a great collection but considerable personal expertise, which found lasting expression in his many publications. The remarkable thing about his books is that they have not dated. Twenty or thirty years on they are still relied upon as standard reference works, notable as much for their clarity of exposition as their steadfastly reliable content. They include The Birth of Photography (1976), Colour Photography (1978), Cameras: From daguerrotypes to instant pictures (1978), and the incomparable The History of Movie Photography (1981). This is still the best book on cinema technology that exists, and it is hard to see how it could be bettered. It is particularly strong on early cinema technologies – magic lanterns, the optical toys and chronophotographic experiments of the so-called ‘pre-cinema’ era, the first cameras and projectors, the development of colour cinematography, early widescreen systems, the birth of home movies. Its illustrations have been plundered by countless other sources. Film archivists swear by the book – it used to be (and I hope it still is) standard reading for anyone working at the National Film and Television Archive’s preservation centre. Another gem is Muybridge and the Chronophotographers (1992), a small exhibition book reportedly thrown together in a great hurry, but a handy reference guide that I turn back to again and again.

Sadly Brian suffered a serious stroke in 1995, and took no further active part in the worlds of film and photography to which he had contributed such invaluable knowledge. It was a sad curtailment to a varied and richly productive career, recognised through such honours as his Fellowship of the Royal Society Arts, but leaving him little known to the general film enthusiast. Check out one of his books – they’ll be in the local library or second-hand book store. They look beautiful, and they wisely and reliably inform. Thank you, Brian.

4 responses

  1. I was really sorry to read of Brian’s death on the Bioscope today – he was the reason I ended up talking about silent films as he was technically overseeing special events at MOMI in my years at the NFT and first asked me to do a show – eventually I did five or six. He always took a vast amount of trouble over his presentations and was never happier than when he had shows in the MOMI cinema which involved about four different film-format projectors in the auditorium (usually plus Magic Lantern) to and from which he would flit noiselessly (despite his size) so that the image always hit the screen right on cue, sharp as a pin and with almost no preamble. I seem to remember he was particularly responsible with Stephen Herbert for the Home Movie days which were phenomenally popular and introduced me and hundreds of others to the joy of amateur film as social document. He was a major developer of the wide educational possibilities of early film and a lovely man.

  2. What kind words! Brian was me farther in law and I am so proud to be a Coe! I am so glad that my children got to spend the last few years of Brian’s live with him and we are very proud to be coe’s xx

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