ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — William Coupon’s signature chiaroscuro brought him to the cover of Time magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire and the New York Times, where his marbled backgrounds framed George Harrison, Miles Davis and Mick Jagger, among others.
The acclaimed portrait and documentary photographer moved from New York to Santa Fe a year ago. The city’s Photo-eye Gallery is exhibiting his work through Jan. 5, along with a new monograph of the same title. Former Time magazine managing editor and Leonardo da Vinci biographer Walter Isaacson penned the book’s introduction:
“Whenever I see a William Coupon photograph, I’m reminded of masterworks by great painters such as Holbein and Rembrandt. Unlike mere headshots, the setting and positioning, in front of his trademark mottled painted backdrops, allow us enough space to reflect on the personalities of the subjects before us, one of the great innovations of Renaissance art.”
Coupon says it all started at the TriBeCa nightclub the Mudd Club, the nucleus for bands like the Talking Heads and the Ramones back in the late 1970s. At the time it was known as the antidote to the uptown glitz of the Manhattan disco elites at Studio 54.
“I barged myself into Studio 54,” Coupon said in a telephone interview. “I befriended the doorman and got lots of nice shots. In retrospect, they were portraits.
“I went up to Truman Capote and I said, ‘We should do a book,'” he continued. “I think he might have said something to (club owner) Steve Rubell. I wound up getting thrown out in the rain.”
Undaunted, Coupon headed to the shoebox-sized Mudd Club, where the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Blondie and other purveyors of the nascent punk scene got their start.
“It was like, here’s this great scene right in front of me,” he said, “—— these crazy kids. I thought I could document this.”
Soon club owner and former ambulance driver Steve Massa agreed to hang Coupon’s portraits on the club walls.
“After that, I started getting calls from New York magazine and Atlantic Records,” he said. “It was meteoric.”
Twenty Time magazine covers later, he’s still shooting. He has photographed every president since Nixon, except Barack Obama. He’s taken pictures of Neil Young, Jerry Garcia and Paul Simon. He used that money and lucrative advertising contracts from Nike, Rolex, FedEx, Transamerica, Apple, Ford, Merrill Lynch and Johns Hopkins, among others, to fund expeditions to photograph tribal people in Australia, Scandinavia, Haiti, Africa, Turkey, Spain and Panama. Additional projects have included Death Row inmates, drag queens and cowboys.
He says his fascination with indigenous people likely stems from his childhood reading National Geographic.
“I always wanted to shoot real people around the world,” he said. “I certainly prefer people that aren’t familiar with the camera like celebrities.”
Rolling Stone commissioned him to photograph former Beatle George Harrison in Los Angeles in 1987.
“It was very disappointing,” Coupon said. “I met George and he was like this curmudgeon. He’d been out of the loop. This was before the Traveling Wilburys.
“He was at Warner Bros., so he had to compete with Prince and Madonna. He had to go through the motions,” Coupon said.
In contrast, Jerry Garcia was ebullient.
“Garcia was wonderful,” Coupon said. “He was charming. He gave me a lot of time.” E Street Band saxman “Clarence Clemons was there and they were going over the latest (Grateful Dead) album, ‘Touch of Grey.’ ”
Rolling Stone commissioned him to shoot Jagger in 1983.
“I’d waited for Jagger for something like three months,” he said. “There was never a time set.”
Then the editors called and said the singer would be at the studio in two hours. At the time, Coupon was shooting a portrait of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. When he informed Wiesel of his next appointment, Wiesel said, “Who’s Mick Jagger?”
Jagger “was very charming and funny,” Coupon said. “I said, ‘I spent the whole day with Elie Wiesel and he said, ‘Who’s Elie Wiesel’?
“I put him in my bathrobe.”
Coupon captured Ronald Reagan in 1991 in California.
“Reagan was struggling with his illness,” he said. “There was some blankness to him. His handlers were there telling him to smile. I said, ‘I don’t usually do smiley faces.’ ”
Nixon wanted to discuss baseball.
George W. Bush took one look at the photographer’s fingers, adorned with Navajo jewelry, and deadpanned, “You get to Texas much?”
Coupon shot Miles Davis on an assignment for fashion designer Issey Miyake.
“Issey Miyake was there,” Coupon said. “He brought a few beautiful Japanese models that Miles was very eager to impress. He was quite lecherous.
“So he’s this genius and on the other hand, he’s undeveloped.”
In one of the images, Davis poses cradling Coupon’s infant daughter Hayley.
“When I came home, he called me and said, ‘I don’t want any pictures of me with that white baby.’
“I loved his face; I always did.”
Coupon is already planning his next shoot at the behest of a former New York Times editor. It will focus on octogenarian mafiosos in Little Italy.