Spotlight Interview … Photographer William Coupon

photo-booth-brown2a4When one thinks of William Coupon one also thinks of Irving Penn and the classic work he did with the tribes and mobile studios.

William Coupon is widely known for his single light source portraits, and in his early days a mobile studio  much like Penn. It is the simplicity of the approach that makes his work so complex.

We are pleased to speak with one of the contemporary masters … William Coupon.

JRP: William, New York is home for you correct?

William Coupon: I have been in New York City since the Fall of 1974. I finished Syracuse University and completed my studies by working the summer as an ice cream salesman, selling a majority of Popcicles and Creamcicles. That is, however, with the exception of a period between 1994 and 1998, when I was living in an adobe hut in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

choco-panama2aJRP: How and where did you get started in photography? Did you have any formal training?

William Coupon: I didn’t study photography, and so therefore had no formal training. In fact, I was more intent on being a performer (either an actor or a musician). I didn’t really take photographs in college. I took more creative writing courses and also sat next to Bob Costas in Dr. Alten’s news writing class. It wasn’t until a few years in New York, working in the advertising world, that I thought that photographs could be my “chosen voice.”

JRP: What led to your signature style of single light portrait photography?

William Coupon: My first photographs were photographs that talked – my “audio-graphs” – and my photographs that moved – my “kinetographs”. They were used in department store displays, like Bloomingdales, and were a bit gimmicky needless to say. So I thought, after that beginning to just simplify and one light was enough for me. It’s not that its one light, its that it worked well against the backgrounds I had painted and one light did what I wanted to see. I also love to do street shots, which use available light.

JRP: What portion of your work is digital and what percentage is film?

William Coupon: These days 100% is digital. That is not to say I wouldn’t return to the 6006 Rollei’s or my 665 Polaroid. Those cameras are talking to me at night asking me when I will use them again! For commercial assignments digital is great, and I’ve learned that even for my own personal work, which constitutes 80% of my photography, the small Leica D-LUX-3 or Lumix LX-3’s are great.

I love the computer. I am not manipulating much in Photoshop if at all. You know, “truth is stranger than fiction.”

JRP: What would I find in your camera bag for a typical shoot?

William Coupon: You will find two of everything:  2 Canon 5D’s, 2 Profoto light heads and power units, a light stand, a chimera, and a backdrop. That is if I am doing a backdrop portrait. Sometimes, I just use the 5D with no lights at all, utilizing available light.

JRP: Do you print in house and if so what do you use?

William Coupon: I make my own prints, generally speaking. I have the Epson 3800. If I need to print big there are two outside printers I can go to. Up to 17×22, I am good to go right in my home office.

JRP: What is the most critical moment of image capture in your opinion?

ronald-reagan2aWilliam Coupon: I suppose the most crucial time is when I feel I got the shot. I’d say that usually happens within the first five minutes. At that point I am ever so willing to let the the subject dictate the remaining part of the shoot. This could provide some surprises if I am lucky. You have to realize for many of my shots I have very limited time. Sometimes it is not uncommon to have less than ten minutes. I had 3 minutes with Yasser Arafat.

JRP: How does one continue to offer style and substance in today’s fragile image market?

clockracoonblue2aWilliam Coupon: Style and Substance? Who is looking for that? Frankly, you are lucky if they are looking for style and as for substance, that, too is rare. Mostly, they are looking to make money, which isn’t happening very often these days. I think most art directors have a short-list Rolodex. They don’t look for variety. They don’t look for substance. They look for professionals who can deliver something the client is happy with with no surprises. So if you want style and substance, it generally works best to do that on your own. I am not saying that a client may not have good taste or doesn’t know style. Often times the application, because of the layers, is counter-productive to the creative product.

JRP: Share with us a couple of the best things you have learned from other photographers down through the years?

new-guinea-tribesman2a1William Coupon: I think I learned that it’s best to be known for having a voice, so that even if the work is superficially versatile, it looks like a photo that represents a singular vision. So, while it’s best to be known for a certain style, it is always best to try to find many ways of seeing the same thing. It is a good lesson in real life, too. So someone like Avedon, look at his body of work and his history. He did it all and it’s always Avedon!

JRP: What advice would you pass on to other photographers starting out?

William Coupon: My only advice to photographers is just remember, there are many good photographers but not many good photographs. What I mean by that is it’s not enough to be proficient with your gear. You have to say something in your work that is your voice. I don’t care if it is a candid shot on the subway or a shot of a Nike ad. You gotta be you.  Good to emulate, to learn. I know,  I did. Only when you can realize your ideas can your photographs be strong, powerful, and make you have a career that lasts. Ideas are therefore, as important as your photographs. They should work hand in hand, and eye to eye.

JRP: To view more of William Coupon’s photography please follow this link:


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