William Coupon (b. 3 December 1952) is an American photographer, born in New York City, known principally for his formal painterly backdrop portraits of tribal people, politicians and celebrities. 

Some of his most notable images are of the Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton which were “Person of the Year” covers for Time Magazine, Yasser Arafat, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, and Miles Davis.


William Coupon was born in New York City, but moved to Washington, D.C. and later to San Francisco.  He attended Syracuse University and ultimately moved to New York City to begin his photographic career.  He began in 1979 to photograph backdrop portraits of New York’s youth culture, to document its “New Wave/Punk” scene at the then popular Mudd Club in lower Manhattan.  Commercial work soon followed for a variety of international magazines, record companies and advertising agencies.  He continued to photograph portraits, often of various sub-cultures and indigenous peoples in the 80’s and early 90’s including Haitians, Florida State Penitentiary Inmates, Australian Aboriginals, Drag Queens, Alaskan Eskimos, Scandinavian Laplanders, Turkish Kurds, Israeli Druzim, The Traditional Dutch, Moroccan Berbers, New Guinea Tribesmen, Brazilian Caraja, Malaysian Penan, Native Americans, and the Mexican Lacandon, Huichol, Mennonite and Tarahumara.  These were titled his “Social Studies” series.  He was invited to photograph the world’s tribal leaders during Earth Summit in May of l992, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  His most current work embraces the digital medium, in places like Cuba, Venezuela and in his native America, which is more candid, but still formalistic in approach.

The portrait style is up-close and painterly, with very warm earth tones against a mottled canvas.  The style is usually medium-shot and classically lit using medium format cameras, referencing the Dutch painting masters such as Rembrandt and Holbein.  The portraits have a quality about them that is less about fashion than about personality and as groups there is attempt to show their disparity as well what is relatable amongst the earth’s faces in a manner that is real, non-compromising, or over-glamorized.  They were often accompanied by environmental images, which have a noticeably journalistic feel. 

The great diversity of human nature is almost unfathomable. Imaging if you can, the scope of work portrait photographers undertake when trying to encapsulate this collage of DNA that makes every living person unique. How we perceive each other is also unique to our minds eye. Is it the job of the artist to see the world differently?

Coupon’s view on society captures moments not meant to shock, but to reflect on the present. His career has seen him photograph some familiar and not so familiar faces, each to their own, each as influential in their own right. His art is not intended to strip the subject down. It’s our skin and features that make us who we are. Nothing is meant to flashy, honesty is the key, take it at face value. 

America is the greatest palate. This synthetic land of imagination and spontaneous culture have made for great art for centuries. No true originality exists here. They are all making it up as they go along, generation by generation. Coupon’s work goes against the grain of America’s self portrait. Take away ethnicity, commercialism, fame and fortune, you’re left with a nation of people still trying to work out who they are.

I am a portrait photographer from New York City.  I work out of lower Manhattan, near the South Street Seaport.  I was born in New York, and raised in the Washington, D. C., and the suburban San Francisco area.  In fact, I was raised where Apple Computer now has its headquarters in Cupertino ~ although I was 13 then and more likely working the orchards of the areas near Santa Clara than on any computer at the time.  I was always inspired by travel, by culture, by faces.  And for some reason, I have always been drawn to formal portraits and their relationship with painting.  The chiaroscuro lighting is prevalent in my working style when it comes to the formal studio portraits but I also feel the “street” photography is also a big part of my career, and gives a sense of place to the studio portraits:  I do both.  In any case, my first thought was to photograph everyone in the world as a formal portrait, and although I got off to a pretty good start, these days I realize it would take a lot longer than originally expected.

My first true photographs were photographs that talked – called “audiographs” – which were photographs that had looped cassettes behind a framed image, and photographs that moved – called “kinetographs” – which were photographs that were attached to moving motors.  The “kinetographs” were commissioned for window displays at Bloomingdale’s in the late l970’s ~ advertising Sonya Rykiel swimwear in their large corner window.  I photographed a documentary on Studio 54, the legendary New York disco, in late summer l978, and they immediately were included in the International Center of Photography exhibition:  “Fleeting Gestures:  Treasures of Dance Photography.”  The show was a huge success, and my work was the last images in a chronological history of dance in photography.

I became interested in formal studio portraits in 1979 while observing it’s lower Manhattan youth (my peers) and its present counter-culture, and decided early on to use a single-light source and simple mottled backdrop as a studio style. This was then used to document global sub-cultures.  Many of the projects – referred to as “Social Studies” – became documents of indigenous people.  These include projects on Haiti, Australian Aboriginals, Native Americans, Scandinavian Laplanders, Israeli Druzim, Moroccan Berbers, Alaskan Yupik, Spanish Gypsies, Turkish Kurds, Central African Pygmy, and Panamanian Cuna and Chocoe.  These projects also included Death Row Inmates, Drag Queens, and Cowboys.  Stylistically, they were always photographed formally and contextually, or environmentally, with 2 1/4 Rolleiflex black and white images, which were meant to be companions to the studio portraits.

In 1992, I was invited to photograph the world’s tribal leaders during Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  I was asked by the United Nations and the United States Congress to exhibit this work in the United States Senate Rotunda, as part of the UN’s Year of the Indigenous People.  These are exhibited in large archival IRIS and/or Inkjet prints.

In addition to this personal work, I have worked extensively in commercial photography and film.  I have photographed 20 Time Magazine covers – including portraits of all the Presidents since Richard Nixon.  These include the Clinton and Bush Person of the Year covers.  Newsweek covers include Michael Ovitz and Jerry Garcia.  Rolling Stone Magazine covers include Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia, and Neil Young.  The New York Times Sunday Magazine covers include Secretary of State Shultz and Elie Wiesel and a major award-wining article on the Turkish Kurds living on the Iraqi border.  I have photographed some of the world’s leaders including Benazir Bhutto, Yasser Arafat, Kofi Annan, and Prince Phillip, and have won several awards through assignments for Esquire, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, People, Details, The Economist, Texas Monthly, Playboy, Forbes, Fortune, and virtually every major international publication.  I have completed major advertising campaigns for Nike, FedEx, Transamerica, Ford, Japan Airlines, Amgen, Searle, Blue/Cross/BlueShield, Apple Computer (an assignment hand selected by Steve Jobs), Maxell Audio, and the global corporate ad campaign for HP through Goodby, Silverstein and Partners and the Titleist Golf campaign for Arnold Communications of their club pros.  I have done major corporate campaigns for Merrill/Lynch, The Washington Post Company, Morgan Stanley, Harvard University, Jamie Dimon of J. P. Morgan/Chase Bank, The Harvard Business School, The New York Times Company, McDonnell Douglas, and the Johns Hopkins University Hospital. 

I have directed television commercials for Danone Yogurt, and documented my ethnographic series on digital video.  I worked for nearly a decade (1985-1994) with Issey Miyake, the Japanese fashion designer, doing men’s wear for the Japanese market and photographed numerous album covers including Bette Midler, Ron Carter, Stanley Turrentine, Isaac Hayes, Essa Pekka Salonen, Chou Liang Lin, Midori, Daryl Hall, Foreigner, Wynton Marsalis, and Yo-Yo-Ma.  

A website is up and devoted to the work in its entirety:  http://www.williamcoupon.com.    

I have an extensive doll collection and through their graciousness, have been allowed to photograph their image with 4x5 digital equipment as well as the large 20x24” format Polaroids.  Many of the ethnographic portraits were also taken with SX-70 film ~ a wonderful collection of Rembrandt/Holbein-like images that look like miniature paintings.  Other projects include a still life series:  “Life Stills” and a large format Polaroid series of nudes.  A book of the ethnographic work is forthcoming, with the title:  “SOCIAL STUDIES”.   A companion book of the celebrities, politicians, and sports figures has also been designed: “PORTRAITS.”  And a third book, on the New York City punk scene entitled, ‘THE PUNKS OF NEW YORK.”

I had the major exhibition in the summer of l995 at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico entitled:  “Ethnographic Pictures.”  The collected work has been exhibited internationally, in Amsterdam, Holland at “Gallery Art and Commerce” as well as the Kurdish portraits from “Social Studies Sixteen” at the Hotel de’ Ville in Paris, France as part of a Kurdish graphic history curated by Susan Meiselas, the photojournalist with Magnum.  The exhibit “Democracy in America”, taking place at the Arizona State University Art Museum, in Tempe, Arizona, includes the Presidential images shot originally for Time Magazine.  In 2007, I had a one-man show at the Govinda Gallery in Washington D. C., and since have continued to do commercial assignments and continuing to produce additional ethnographic work, most recently in Guatemala in 2009 of the T’Zutuhil people and in Mindanao, Philippines in April of 2010 of the T’Boli tribe.   In February of 2013 I had the exhibition “Musicians and Artists” went on display at the Auditorio Nacional, in Mexico City.   Also, in November of 2013, I had an exhibition of my selection of portraits of the artist Jean Michel Basquiat, at Melet Mercantile, in Soho, New York City.  An exhibition of my ethnographic portrait series will be seen in the Cultural Minister’s Office in the Government of Guatemala, in Guatemala City in the Spring of 2015.