My family first became involved in the photography business in Norwich in the 1850s. At that time there was a great demand for likenesses and so in Norwich there were probably 50 or 100 photographers. My great grandfather initially worked for Sawyer and Bird, probably the biggest photographic business. They operated from 32 London Street which we did actually continue to operate in until I think 2005.
It was the oldest photographic studio in the world and as far as I can research he became their manager in 1863, he then became the owner or certainly his name goes over the top of the business in 1883 when Sawyer decamped to Ealing to do the calotype process. This made images permanent, up until then they had not been.
The work they did was exactly what a general photographer would do today. I have a framed advert in my office, from the Norwich Mercury, I was astonished when I first came across it as it mentioned all the things done today, portraits, pictures of houses for estate agents, images of people to do with work, known today as commercial photography.
Thirty-two London Street
They had a studio in 32 London Street, which is where I spent a lot of my early career, and it was still operating as a portrait studio until the 2000s. There was a dome shaped roof because up until the 1930s they used to take portraits with daylight, so this oval shaped glass roof was used rather than a flash. I have got photographs in the family album showing the glass dome being filled in with brick.
Props for posing for photographs
Everything was very formal when taking portraits. There would be a table, chair and maybe a plant and a very plain background, that was the standard format. I still have an upright wooden chair which they used to sit people on and pose them, very uncomfortable I would think. I have pictures of people sitting on that chair in the 1860s.
Customers bringing in their own films to be developed
The family also did processing for the retail shop, for customers who took their own photographs and brought them in to be processed, developed and printed.
I think that this process would have started somewhere around Edwardian times. For some reason and I think that it was only in the UK that this happened, chemists got involved with the processing and printing. It continues to this day with Boots and so on.
I actually sold 20 Castle Meadow (where the processing was done) in the 1970s as by then it was rented out to various different businesses. All the processing and printing then went down to Mountergate, this building had a weavers’ window, which we were told was the only weavers’ window left in Norwich. We were there until about 2000 and I turned it into a colour laboratory. All the staff were convinced that it was haunted; very large electric storage heaters were reputed to move at night.
My life before the photography business – athletics and teacher training
I had absolutely no interest in and no intention of coming into the family business at all. My interest was athletics and the only thing I was interested in was trying to become a world class athlete, which in those days did not involve any money whatsoever. As in many sports you had to be an amateur and could not receive any money at all for any run. If you did, even five shillings for a run up a mountain in the Lake District you would be deemed professional and you were never allowed to compete again.
That is what I wanted to do and one day when running in London in the early 1960s I was approached by Jim Biddle who was the manager of British Athletics. He asked me if I would come to Borough Road teacher training college and run for them. I was running for Guildford at the time I asked if he wanted to know if I had any qualifications. He didn’t he just wanted me to run for them, and so by accident I went to teacher training college and actually enjoyed it very much.
London Polytechnic, the legendary Miss Harker, and being told I’d never become a photographer
I was trained to be a teacher but in fact never really did it. There was a lot of pressure from the family to do photography. To keep them happy I went to London Polytechnic for a couple of years. It was the only place in the UK where they taught photography to degree level.
There was a very famous lady there, legendary, Miss Harker, who was in charge of the photography department. She wrote a letter pretty early on to my parents saying ‘this is not for him, he will never become a photographer’.
Years later in the late 1970s one of my managers was president of the British Institute of Photographers [BIPP]. He held the annual BIPP knees-up at the Sainsbury Centre and Miss Harker was the guest of honour, I asked him if he would sit me next to her. I was able to spend the evening with her, to actually prove that I had been able to become a photographer. I reminded her of the letter and we had a good laugh together.
Post teacher training – still an athlete
After that I was doing anything. In those days you used to be able to attend European athletic meetings. Sometimes you would find there would be money left in your running shoe in the changing groom afterwards, so you would get the air fare to go out there. Two or three of us would pile into a minivan and save money; you were literally living on a shoestring being an athlete.
Phone call from the family – a business in trouble
My father and uncle were opticians not photographers, they had the business, which had two parts and was run by managers. One part was a retail shop with a portrait studio in London Street and was run by Mr Skinner, he had been batman to my uncle in the First World War. The second part was an advertising commercial photographer’s and was run by Fred Low.
My family rang me up and told me that the business was losing so much money that they couldn’t go on doing it anymore.
I felt extremely guilty, I was 25 and at that time had hurt my Achilles tendon so couldn’t run. So I said ‘okay I’ll come for a couple of years and see if I can sort it out for you’. And I’m still trying.
Types of cameras used, and process of photography
In the late 1960s and the 1970s the Rolls Royce of cameras was Hasselblad. This was what we called a two and a quarter square, this being the size of the negative two and a quarter inches by two and a quarter inches. That was used for wedding work.
Most of the work I did at that stage was commercial for old Norwich companies such as Bonallack’s who made big containers, Norvic Shoes, Reckitt and Colman, Mackintosh’s all the famous Norwich names. We would take a five inch by four inch camera [five by four]. You had to put a black cloth over your head and when you viewed the image on the screen the image was upside down and backwards, and of course it was on a tripod. There was a movement on the front of the camera so you could turn the lens, and tilt it backwards and forwards. This was the initial way I learnt to take photos.
I can remember being about seven or eight years old and being photographed with an enormous beautiful wooden camera made in 1904. It has big glass wooden ten inch by eight inch plates. My daughter has the camera, along with the plates and lenses in her living room.
In terms of equipment it progressed enormously in the 1950s and 1960s, the five by four seems very old fashioned now but then it was absolutely state of the art.
It was highly skilful, far more than today, you had all the movements to get everything in focus. Nowadays in terms of retouching you can just go on the computer and use Photoshop and so on.
Mountergate and falling foul of Gladys
I remember at Mountergate we had an incredibly skilled lady called Gladys. All photography was in black and white and any changes you wanted to make on a negative, dust spots, making an area less dark you could actually spot it in by hand with a little paint brush like an artist’s brush. Gladys was brilliant at this and did this all day long.
I fell foul of her quickly, there was a tiny tea room that sat about eight staff, who had their mid morning, lunch and afternoon breaks in there. What I had not appreciated was that Gladys had a different seat for each break and I made the mistake of sitting in her seat on a couple of occasions as I couldn’t remember which one she had.
Processing of negatives
A lot of the negatives were glass, some were normal negative material. You had to clip them into rods, there was a clip on each corner and then by hand you had to put them in the developer to develop. This was done completely in the dark, and then from the developer you put them into the fixer and then wash them.
There was of course every likelihood that in the dark, particularly when you were new to it, that you would drop it on the floor and ruin it or someone would come in and switch the light on and everything was gone. You would then have to go back and do the photographs again.
It was very stressful, and of course even worse with weddings, I was petrified a lot of the time.
My first photography job – possibly a practical joke
My first job was, I think possibly a practical joke to some extent. I was sent up to the Castle Museum, if you got to the top of the Castle there are four parapets on each corner. They wanted a photo of the whole of Norwich, and I went up there with my five by four camera and tripod and put it on one of these parapets.
Of course from the Mountergate tearoom they could see me, but I managed it.
Introduction of colour
Agfa were the first company with colour in the 1950s and Coe’s was one of four companies to be chosen by them to start colour in the UK. It was before my time but I don’t think that they got on well with it because when I went to Mountergate there was no colour left so I don’t think that it lasted more than two or three years.
In 1969 – 1970 all the wedding photos were in black and white. I am very enthusiastic to pick up the latest technology and they had just started producing a machine that would develop colour films similarly. It all had to be done in the dark and you had to put film rolls on clips but the machine would move it from one chemical to the next, from developer to fixer and so on. They were very unreliable and dangerous in terms of possibly losing films.
Seeing an opportunity to save the business
I was very attracted by this introduction of colour processing. Having come into a business that was really bankrupt I was looking for opportunities to turn it around. Most photographers would not touch colour weddings because of the risk involved and the slower film.
One person was just starting to do it, Dawson Strange in London, and I went down to visit him, and thought that this is the way to go.
Slater’s of Newmarket, colour printing and meeting my wife – a highly skilled colour printer
In about 1965 the colour printing of amateur film was becoming popular, everyone was coming back with their colour films from their holidays and it was a big business.
John Slater who was the main horse photographer in Newmarket had the idea of setting up a laboratory and that lab became very very big. It was picking up films from Newcastle, Manchester, all over, it was highly successful.
The amount of films being processed for the general public rocketed during the 1970s it went up ten, twenty percent every year. It became very big business, Boots took on an enormous amount of work and a lot of people made a great deal of money from it
I wanted to know about colour so I went down to Slater’s for three months to learn about colour and that’s where I met my wife. She was the best colour printer you have ever seen.
The printers sat on the machines and would make two or three copies of each negative, they would come off in strips. The colour grader would then say ‘plus this’ or ‘minus this’ and then it would go back to the colour printer who would then feed in the different information and it would go back and forth until it was right.
My wife had the incredible ability to look at the negative, which looked all orange, and know exactly what needed to be done. This negated the need for two or three tests because she could print it 90 percent of the time just by looking at it.
So I thought that we would do colour weddings. Our strap line was ‘colour weddings for the same price as black and white’. Every other photographer was frightened of doing colour weddings and was charging three, four, five times the price. I had in fact looked at the process and worked out that the way we were doing it was actually ten times cheaper to produce colour than black and white especially when my wife was printing.
From doing ten colour weddings in 1970 by 1973 we were doing 600. This is the point that the business turned around and we started making a lot of money.
New York marathon and a chance sighting of a one-hour mini lab
In 1981 I went to run the New York marathon and a couple of days before I was walking around and I came across a one hour mini lab. People could take their films in and they were processed and printed in one hour. In those days three days was the norm, because the film would be sent away to Slater’s for example. 24 hours was unusual and people paid more for that.
Suddenly I saw this one hour mini lab and thought ‘this is it, I’m going to try this’. I scraped together enough money to buy the machine, from memory about £60,000 – £70,000 and I did not know if it was going to work. I decided to put it in the worst retail place in Norwich, which at that time was Anglia Square, considered to be the graveyard of retail shops.
On the second day they were queuing around the square and we took 800 films in the first 24 hours. But we couldn’t do them within the hour as there was just too much for the machine to cope with.
I opened another one on The Walk, which was equally successful and then another one in London Street. This was in 1982 and they were phenomenally successful. I thought that if it carried on like this I would open up more all over the country.
Having run out of capital I got investment from Scottish American investment trust and by 1984 we had about 12 – 15, the most successful being in Lions Yard in Cambridge. When I look back I wonder how I had the nerve to do it, the cost of securing the little shop in Cambridge even before rent and rates was £30,000.
It was an enormous commitment and I had about 37 stores each with a wedding portrait studio attached. So one hour mini lab processing was the big story of the 1980s.
Investment from Kodak
As with everything that is phenomenally successful everybody gets in on it, Kodak approached me and offered £450,000 for 15 percent of the company. I thought that I had won the football pools.
They came in but being naive what I hadn’t taken in to account was that together with Scottish American investment trust that gave them 51 percent. Within six weeks they had held a board meeting voting no confidence in me and kicked me out.
So by 1987 having created all this Kodak had taken it over. Luckily I had had enough sense to have a contract signed that if for any reason I left the company I could buy back the business at Castle Meadow and London Street for the book value, which is what I did. They tried to stop me and there was a lot of skulduggery, accusing me of everything under the sun.
But they made a fatal mistake. About two months later, Christmas 1987 I was with my lawyer at his premises when there was a call from the switchboard saying that someone was downstairs to see me. It was the company secretary who was at the board meeting when I was given the vote of no confidence. I went down to see him and he said ‘Andrew would you like the actual minutes of the board meeting?’ Kodak had come up with a set of minutes that were absolutely concocted and fabricated, not a single word was true.
From that moment I knew that we would win which we did and I got my businesses back and a very large compensation payment. These are things that you learn about business.
Family bereavement and the sale of London Street store
My father and uncle owned the business and my uncle had a son, Mark Coe, who was in the Army, and the agreement was when Mark left the Army he would come into the company.
In the 1980s Mark Coe commanded a regiment of engineers in Bielefeld in Germany and had just done a tour in Ireland. One day he was just in his minivan outside his house in Bielefeld when a young couple walked up and in front of his triplet children, shot him. This was big news in the 1980s.
As the agreement stood I obviously wanted to pay his widow for the half of the company, which was valued by the accountants, and the only way I could afford to do this was to sell London Street.
It is actually all very well valuing the rest of the company at that amount but you do have to keep on working at it and take all the stresses and strains. So there I was, and from there being only my mini labs there were now 14 or 15 in Norwich. Kodak got into it late and Kodak Express’s went down and sold out to Snappy Snaps. Some of my original shops are still with Snappy Snaps. With more people being involved it was difficult to make any money.
I thought ‘well what am I going to do?’ it was 1990 and I was starting again, I still had the business in the centre of Norwich, so that’s when I became a portrait wedding photographer.
Becoming a portrait wedding photographer, international awards and photographer to the British Olympic team
I hadn’t taken a photograph for 17 years, and even then it had been advertising, commercial photography. I went and found who I considered to be the best portrait wedding photographers in the world, in Germany, America and Australia. I spent £30,000 over six months learning from them, because if I went to a wedding you can imagine they thought they were getting Andrew Coe and I had never taken one, so that was very stressful.
I had to learn very quickly, and within two years I was winning international awards, teaching in Las Vegas, Madrid and all over the world. I was the official photographer to British Olympic team in Barcelona and in Atlanta in 1996.
I absolutely loved the ten years that I was a wedding photographer, but it was very hard physically. I would do the wedding from the moment it began to the finish at midnight. The only time I felt as tired was when I was running a marathon. So I stopped in 2000.
Training photographers and writing the first National Vocation Qualification (NVQ) module for wedding and portrait photography
I started training people because at that time there was no proper training in wedding and portrait photography. I was asked to write the first ever NVQ module for wedding and portrait photography, which I did.
From the early 2000s through to about 2012 my great friend Brian Barrett who had a photography shop in Aylsham and I started training together. We would train people one weekend a month, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We had 180 people come from all over the country each paying over £2,000 for training.
We set up more people to become professional photographers than anybody else. We trained them properly and set up a franchise as well, Barrett and Coe, and at one point had 80 franchisees in wedding photography.
They could do that from home, at weekends, they could have another job. We used to get most of their bookings for them from our national advertising.
I used to critique every single wedding myself so I could ensure the high quality of the work.
Digital photography and Google – changing the nature of the business
The introduction of digital changed everything. Suddenly anybody could photograph a wedding because they could see the results as they went along, whereas before, using film, they didn’t know if what they were doing was any good.
So that killed weddings overnight in many ways. My personal opinion is that there were of course some brilliant wedding photographers but there were an awful lot of bad wedding photographers, absolutely appalling. Anybody could pick up a camera, with no training and call themselves a wedding photographer, it’s just appalling.
At about the same time Google suddenly changed. Up until about 2009 if you put ‘photography training’ or ‘photography courses’ into Google it would bring up whoever they thought was best which was us. No expenditure, search engine optimisation needed, we were top all the time. It was a national thing so no matter where you were Newcastle or Glasgow we would come up as the top place to train.
Suddenly overnight Google changed to become a local Yellow Pages, if you were in Newcastle you would get the Newcastle photographers. Of course other people had seen what I was doing training-wise and were gobsmacked that I was getting £2,000 per person for one weekend a month. This was just after the 2008 crash so a lot of them were doing very badly and so every photographer started training.
They weren’t very good themselves a lot of them, and still aren’t. You will find most photographers offer training. So overnight our £180,000 turnover just collapsed, it became very difficult to be a wedding photographer unless you were working with the very top of the market.
So from 2007 to 2010 the market changed, digital first then Google.
The upside of digital is the quality, you have to get your head round it but it is good quality. It is just unfortunate that in this country you do not have to have a qualification to practise, in Germany this would not be allowed, you would have to get properly qualified. It is completely wrong here because a lot of families are very disappointed with their wedding photographs.
Present day work
The business is now really looking after our 17 franchisees and 120 independent studios around the UK.
I have a contract with Emma’s Diary, a best practice for mums, who can register for offers that Emma’s Diary recommend. We get the details and then supply 120 studios around the UK with those appointments. This brings in something in the region of £10 million worth of baby photography for those photographers a year.
We also have a contract with Activity Superstore. If you go into Boots or Sainsbury’s, Debenhams or Morrison’s for example and by the till you will see experience boxes for sale, a hot air balloon ride or driving a race car for example. There are also photographic experiences, three in fact, a pet one, a makeover one and one for families. We get those and distribute them to the photographer where the customer is. We place between six and seven thousand appointments with independent photographers a year. All these are checked carefully and we deal with any complaints. Usually we can double a studio’s profits within about 18 months.
So over the years there have been mighty big changes in the industry.
Andrew Coe talking to WISEArchive on 12th December 2018 in Norwich