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The Art of the

Portraitist
William Coupon’s facial obsession

By Robert Kiener
IMAGES ©WILLIAM COUPON / williamcoupon.com

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This profile of world-famous portrait photog- He laughed when reminded of the quote and
rapher William Coupon could start with the bug admitted, “Still am, I suppose. Even the faces of
story. Or maybe one of the better-known anec- bugs. Kinda’ crazy, no?”
dotes involving some of the famous people he’s
photographed over the past five decades. Like BARE BONES PORTRAITS
the time in 1985 when he asked Donald Trump Coupon’s obsession with faces has helped him
to pose for a Manhattan, inc. magazine become one of photography’s most famous
cover portrait holding a dove, portraitists. After his late 1970s photographs
symbolizing his desire to serve as a of New York City-based punk counter-culture
peace negotiator between the Israelis musicians and fans at Manhattan’s Mudd Club
and the Palestinians. “He agreed— caught the attention of advertising and editorial
grudgingly,” says Coupon. “But then art directors, Coupon was commissioned by
the bird pooped all over his suit.” magazines as diverse as Time, Rolling Stone, Forbes,
Or the time Coupon got a last- and Playboy as well as scores of corporations
minute assignment to photograph including Nike, Rolex, Ford Motor Co., and
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Merrill Lynch. His signature style set him apart
in 1980. “He was not at all happy from competitors and kept him busy for four
to be there and gave me just seven decades. As he has said, “I’ve shot everyone from
seconds. Seven! No more. But I got presidents to prostitutes, rock stars to athletes,
the shot,” remembers Coupon. “I authors to actors, farmers to princes, and CEOs
even got him to smile.” to surfers. It’s been too much fun to call it work.
Or the time he was in Texas to You know they say you don’t have a job when
photograph then-Gov. George W. you love what you do.”
Bush for a Time cover, one of 20 he In addition to his editorial and commercial
has done for the weekly magazine. work, he’s built a massive portfolio of self-
“Bush looked over my past work and financed personal work that consists of portraits
singled out pictures of Jimmy Carter documenting subcultures and indigenous
and Yasser Arafat, both of whom had posed with peoples from around the world. This collection,
their hands clasped under their chins. He said, which he labels “Social Studies,” include subjects

In 1985 Coupon asked ‘No way I’m posing like that,’” says Coupon. “Ten
minutes later we were finished and had a great
as diverse as Death Row inmates, Moroccan
Berbers, aboriginal people of Australia, Native

Donald Trump to pose for picture of Bush, smiling gently with his hands
clasped beneath his chin.”
Americans, Malaysian Penan, Central African
pygmies, Mexican Huichol, and many more.

a Manhattan, inc. magazine No, this article starts with the bug story.
The first time I called longtime New York
“Ever since I was a kid reading National Geo-
graphic, I’ve been fascinated with indigenous

cover portrait holding a dove, City resident William Coupon, 67, at his newly
adopted home and studio in the high desert
peoples and exploring where and how they
live, what they think. There is so much to see,

symbolizing his desire to outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, he apologized:


“Sorry, can’t talk now. I’ve just seen one of
to learn,” says Coupon. “I like the fact that
these pictures are simple, raw, and real.” His

serve as a peace negotiator the freakiest things I’ve ever seen in my life. I
apologize but can we talk in a bit?”
work, both commercial and personal, has been
exhibited around the world and is in much

between the Israelis A half hour later he called back and


explained: “It was a bug. It was an unreal bug!
demand by collectors.
While Coupon’s subjects are incredibly varied,

and the Palestinians, To be specific, it’s called a Jerusalem cricket


but is also known as ‘old bald headed man’ or
he’s developed a look that makes his portraits
almost instantly recognizable. Some people have

“He agreed—grudgingly. ‘child of the desert’ and was once feared by the
Southwestern Indians. It’s in my front yard. It’s
described “the William Coupon style.” Notes
the writer Walter Isaacson in the foreword to

But then the bird pooped several inches long and has a disproportionately
large head with a face that looks creepily
the recently published book, “William Coupon:
Portraits,” “There is a consistent and beautiful

all over his suit.” human, like a baby’s. I was fascinated and, I
admit it, a little bit scared. That face!”
simplicity in most of Coupon’s photographs,
which is all the more impressive because of his
All of which provided the perfect segue to wide range of subjects. ... Each one is utterly
remind him how he had described his career singular, as a subject and as a personality.”
when he was just getting started: “I’ve long been Coupon has a less elegant response to the
interested in an obsessive pursuit of the face.” style question: “I like bare bones, austerity,

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How William Coupon challenges
himself with personal work
ppmag.com/coupon-gallery minimalism. You need to avoid all the elements of mystery and ambiguity to these
extraneous stuff you don’t need in an image. It classic but contemporary images.”
goes back to that idea of the pursuit of the face.” There’s another consistency to “the William
Coupon style.” Smiles are few and far between.
CLASSIC BUT CONTEMPORARY “I only go for smiles in unusual situations,” he
He usually poses subjects in front of his now- explains. “Usually a non-smile gives me more of a
famous Belgian linen and heavy cotton painted range of emotion than a smile, which is more
backdrops that lend a painterly feel to his portraits. succinct. A lot of a person’s personality can get
“The backgrounds are easy to transport, and they lost in the smile. An ethereal gaze is more tran-
don’t compete with the subject,” he explains. scendent.” He is, however, a fan of what he dubs
Most compositions are medium-shot, making the Mona Lisa smile. “That’s more pensive than
the face the most dominant feature. a full smile,” he says. “It happens when someone
Lighting, from a single large light box, is is looking back at you. It’s like a conversation.”
from the left and falls across both the subject Perhaps surprisingly, given his lifetime of
and the backdrop, usually softening both with a being commissioned to photograph the rich and
chiaroscuro effect, reminiscent of Rembrandt and famous, he confesses that he prefers shooting
other old masters. Writes Isaacson, “Whenever I “real, ordinary” people, such as those in his
see a William Coupon photograph, I’m reminded “Social Studies” portfolios, to celebrities. “I
of masterworks by great painters. ... The light never set out to be a celebrity photographer. I
and shadows provide both emotional and visual felt those pictures would be too predictable,” he
depth, while the blurring of outlines adds says. “It just happened and was a way to pay the

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bills. I’ve always preferred the spontaneity and
rawness of indigenous people. I wanted to find
the allure in the ordinary.”
Dig a little deeper and he will explain that it
can be a challenge to get celebrities to let down
their guard. “Many, because they’ve been
photographed so often and are familiar with
the dynamic of a shoot, have predetermined
positions, or what I call the ‘forced naturalism’
they fall into. They often tend to stereotype
their own appearance. It can be hard to get
them to relax, be natural and spontaneous,
especially because your time with them is often
limited.” To counteract celebrities’ tendency to
control their pose, “I just shoot fast and let them
get a bit off their guard,” he explains. “That
usually works.”
Coupon says he’s not a big banterer but
prefers to be a fly on the wall when making
portraits. “I don’t like small talk but prefer
to get right down to taking the picture.” He
occasionally poses his subjects but notes that
most celebrities don’t like much direction.
“They prefer to direct themselves.” Often
he will merely tell them, “chin down, lips
together.” Says Coupon, “It’s almost my
mantra. And it works.”

A GOOD START
As he approaches 70, Coupon explains that he
is taking a break from a busy career. He admits
that editorial and commercial work is not as
available or lucrative as it once was, but he still
looks forward to exciting assignments. He’s also
arranging more personal work. Lately, he has
been negotiating to photograph members of the
Tohono O’odham Nation, whose lands stretch
from Arizona across the border into Mexico.
Several galleries sell his work, and he’s hoping
to find a publisher for his personal work with
indigenous peoples. A British-based publisher
has also approached him to publish a collection
of Coupon’s Studio 54 photographs.
“When I was in my 20s, I said that I was setting
out to photograph everyone in the world,” says
Coupon today as he relaxes in his New Mexico
home. “I’m happy that I found a style early on,
one that is simple but is always looking for the
profound.”
He pauses, and as his face breaks into a broad
smile, adds, “You know, I may not photograph
everyone in the world but I am off to a reasonably
good start.” •

Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.

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