Photo diary: William Coupon in a ’52 pink Chevy in Havana
William Coupon is one of the world’s most highly regarded photographers, known for his distinctive portraits. In particular, his studies of world cultures have made him one of the foremost visual documenters of the modern era.
As a portrait photographer from New York City, Coupon began his career in 1979, documenting youth culture and the “New Wave/Punk” scene at the popular Mudd Club in Manhattan, at the time.
His first photographs were ones that talked – they were called “audiographs”, he explains – essentially, photographs that had looped cassettes behind a framed image; and ones that moved – called “kinetographs”, which were pictures attached to moving motors.
The “kinetographs” were commissioned for window displays at Bloomingdale’s in the late-1970s. Coupon says he became interested in formal studio portraits at the time, observing the lower Manhattan youth – whom he considers his peers – and the counter-culture they represented.
The plan was simple – use a single-light source and a basic mottled backdrop; when required, he would set this up as a portable studio. Coupon thus began his life-long project of documenting sub-cultures.
And social we ever be
Coupon describes his travel projects as “Social Studies” – as documents of indigenous people in 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 include death row inmates, drag queens, and cowboys.
All the images bear the trademark styling – they’re all shot formally against the backdrop, with 2 1/4 Rolleiflex black and white images meant to be companions to the studio portraits.
Coupon has also photographed 15 Time Magazine covers – including portraits of all the US Presidents since Richard Nixon, including the Clinton and Bush Person of the Year covers. This, of course, was before the internet and blogging era, notes the photographer.
His other editorial projects include Newsweek covers of Creative Artists Agency co-founder Michael Ovitz and late singer-songwriter of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, as well as Rolling Stone covers of Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Neil Young.
Among his noteworthy journalistic projects are an investigative article on the Turkish Kurds, apart from portraits of world’s leaders including Benazir Bhutto, Yasser Arafat, Kofi Annan, and Prince Phillip. Coupon’s book, Social Studies, of comparative portraits of cultures and sub-cultures around the world, is expected to be released later this year.
Coupon’s current work embraces digital media, and is based across China, Pilippines, Venezuela and his native America. As a part of the series, he sent us a travel diary of his most recent travels through Cuba, and a selection of his striking images. Here’s Coupon in Cuba, in his own words —
As in a gumbo
There are parts of all of us, which when mixed, seem distant, foreign, exotic and incomprehensible. There are people that can, through various stages of metamorphosis, combinations, and changes, as a group, blend. As in a gumbo (soup or stew).
With that comes something of a “synthesis of culture”, when people from various backgrounds co-exist.
Millions of people inhabit an island in the Caribbean, 90 miles from the US and 45 miles from Haiti. They are a mix from European stock to African, as well as the Amer-Indian’s earliest inhabitants. If you search, you will find yourself in the island nation of Cuba.
For most Americans, Cuba is a distant, mysterious place. Politically, having aligned with a Marxist-Lenonist vision, the country survived in the only way it knew: by being fiercely independent. Its checkered history with the United States was a show of mental strength and financial toughness.
The earliest inhabitants were the indigenous Indians, mostly Taino. While the Spanish arrived in 1492 and claimed it for themselves. Slavery, wars, abolitionists, and a cacophony of influences distinguished Cuba as a continuing cultural synthesis.
Like scorned lovers
For the last few decades, the trade blockade had left the island tattered, and left many of its buildings in a state of decay. Russia, Cuba’s number one ally, had stumbled.
Its imported cars, from the United States from the late-1940s, were all jerry-rigged since 1959, when the revolutionary and politician Fidel Castro took over.
Like scorned lovers, the two countries kept up a cold silence. The first wave of Cubans came to the United States at that time.
The second wave, sometimes referred to as the Mariel Boatlift, saw a massive exodus to the United States, under President Carter around 1980, with many immigrants having severe health issues and others ending up as violent criminals.
But other than these Cuban immigrants, and those that have settled rather successfully in Miami, the US has been very much in the dark about Cuban life, Cuban culture, and Cuban spirit.
Ry Cooder’s legacy
What seemed first to break things open was on the music front. The American musician Ryland “Ry” Cooder had gone to the island and recorded with the Buena Vista Social Club — now a group engendering epic status on the world stage.
Still, today, there are venues promoting that musical spirit, and sound of Havana — the salsa, the merengue, and the bachata. In the last few years, the arts scene has exploded in Cuba.
Fabrica del Arte is one venue that combines avant-garde art with a club and a restaurant in the up-and-coming west side of the city. Painting and dance are quite pronounced as well. The Cubans have a solid place in the history of photography — mostly as documentarians.
Politically, on the world stage, they have it hard to find another Castro — his charisma as well as his intellectualism served the country well for many decades, through close to a dozen American Presidents.
For now, Cuba places a great emphasis on education, science and the medical professions. And their sports and ballet representation is world class.
Armed with these facts, I set out from Miami for a quick week-long trip to Havana. I realised, there is no place like Cuba. The cars and the old buildings alone give it a unique, almost fictional quality. An unmatched ‘Latin Disney’. There’s plenty of music and beautiful women too.
All along the Malecón
The Malecón, a waterfront, esplanade, roadway and seawall, is a nice place to relax and people-watch. From the Spanish style Prado, one can see artists work, while strolling along its wide pedestrian boulevard. There is a small Chinatown, a “Barrio Chino,” as well as beautiful old churches and cathedrals.
Havana has a mistaken Latin quality, which is also very European, with several modern cafés and restaurants — mostly quite affordable. Visitors stay with families in their private homes, called “casa particulares” in Spanish.
Being a portrait photographer, however, I enjoy interacting with people the most. I spoke to a few, and the general consensus was that the United States didn’t particularly care for the Cuban regime. The Cubans, however, seemed to be enamoured with the United States.
The path to Cuba now stands open, thanks to Barack Obama, but it’s anyone’s guess whether Donald Trump will continue it. Business as usual, I guess.
In any case, I just loved walking through the streets, the many alleyways and neighbourhoods. My rudimentary Spanish came in handy and the people were engaging, and almost childlike.
There is a fair amount of construction, mostly centred around renovating grand old buildings into the next Four Seasons Hotel. They do have internet in Cuba — you need to buy a card that gives you an hour’s access for about $2.
This way, I stayed connected with the “real world”. Cuba is real, too — just hop in the back of my ’52 pink Chevy. Cuba — this place is still very magical after all these years.
How to get to Cuba
Cuba is a Caribbean island nation under communist rule, located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies 145km (90 miles) south of Key West, Florida, between the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, to the west of Haiti, east of Mexico and northwest of Jamaica. Info on Cuba tourist visas at cuba.visahq.in. Also visit williamcoupon.com