Pictures from a Pandemic: William Coupon

William Coupon, Photograph, Tina Isolated.

By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, June 2020

"I was in Mexico at the beginning of the year. I came back to Santa Fe on March 8. The Covid thing had not been recorded until then but it had just completely exploded. I’ve been in Santa Fe in my house for the last 9 weeks. It has kept me completely hibernated, except for three days in Tucson. I’ve been editing about 20,000 photos, all my digital street pictures that I’ve been concentrating on for the last few years

I’m not doing assignments. I’m basically using the opportunity with Covid to analyze my digital stuff and my iPhone pictures. And that’s probably something I would not have done, had it not been for Covid."

- William Coupon

The masked and correctly distanced individual in this Coupon portrait is Tina Dowell Pickett, a landscaper from Shreveport, Louisiana. The mountains are the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains a few miles from Santa Fe.

William Coupon is a New York born-photographer whose career began when he talked himself into Studio 54 in the late 70s. Working with flash on a 35 mm. camera and wholly self-taught, he caught such disco faces as Grace Jones and the Wall Streeter on wheels, Rollarena, along with Truman Capote, who agreed to furnish a text for a book of his Studio shots. How did that come about? “I was an ambitious young whippersnapper,” Coupon says. 

That project lasted just three weeks. “Steve Rubell and his guys threw me out onto the street in the rain and my camera went flying, and that was the end of my Studio 54 days,” he says. Why did Rubell toss him out? “I never knew.” It was the end of the Capote project likewise. Coupon studied his pictures. “I was really assessing where my future was going be,” he says. “And those Studio 54 photographs were so silhouette-y. When you do a flash on the camera like that, someone gets isolated and the backdrop gets pretty dark and the people pop out at you. So I had really been doing portraits.” 

So portraits. But whose? The polar opposites of Disco, that’s who. Punk.

“I thought maybe what I should do is go down to White Street and do some really raw portraits,” Coupon says. Steve Mass, begetter of the Mudd Club proved agreeable. 

“I began shooting on stark unpainted Belgian linen,” Coupon said. “But I went on to painted backdrops. You could play with lighting a bit better.”

Did he give his subjects – who included David Byrne and Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys - any verbal instructions, any sense of what he was looking for? 

“Probably,” he says. “But very minimal. The scene was so raw and youthful but I shot it in such a classical way, which was an odd juxtaposition, but it didn’t really conflict. They were really stylish people. Steve Mass wound up putting up a set on the walls. I started getting work from New York magazine and a Bette Midler album cover from that. Then I went to Haiti with a girlfriend I met at the Mudd Club. And that was my first ethnographic adventure.”

Coupon is putting together a book which assembles his individual portraits into hugely different groups, ranging from tribal to cultural and/or religious, such as Drag Queens and Mennonites and the similarities he can surface within a small human cluster can disconcert, such as the knowing half-smiles on the faces of some of the Death Row inmates in the Florida State penitentiary. Not many photographers move on so readily from one picture source to another, I observed. “I get quickly bored,” Coupon says. WM

Anthony Haden-Guest

Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist. 

 

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