Photographer William Coupon has made a career photographing the biggest names in music. Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, George Harrison, Mick Jagger—the list goes on, but he's also been known to craft album covers for jazz labels like Blue Note, take historically significant photos for magazines like Time and snap a portrait or two. He is, in a word, amazing, and he now calls Santa Fe home full time. Coupon's next exhibit, Music Speak, opens at Peters Projects this week (5 pm Friday Dec. 14. Free. Through March 15. 1011 Paseo de Peralta, 954-5700), and comprises years of photos Coupon took of black jazz musicians.
What was it that made music such a big part of your practice?
I'm a frustrated musician. I'm a wannabe. Or at least I was. When I was a kid, growing up in the '50s and '60s, being a real fan of pop music and The Beatles particularly, it wasn't 'til later that I got into more international music. In my late teen and early 20s I started to play guitar, and I was working at an ad agency, and I was staring at the prospect of being a failed musician. I was like, 'I think I can do photography.' I had no attachment to it. There was no history of reticent failure. But listen, you do everything in the arts for love, and I saw photography as very open-ended, something I could do all my life. As the years go on, just like anything, you tune into your craft and you learn to see, learn to edit. The whole process of seeing is obviously integral in respect to photography.
Do you think the medium has become undervalued with the rise of cellphone photography, or do you think its intrinsic value is still understood?
Y'know, with the advent of the phone camera and stuff, digital, the proliferation of images has exponentially exploded. I think I'd have to say over the last five to 10 years … I don't want to sound cynical, but there is a certain standard that's come down. I don't think there's as much dedication to detail and craft. It's much more flippant, there's a lot more interest in lifestyle and youth and you see what's happening in journalism. As a documentarian photography, it's very difficult to make a living now. … It got very Disney, y'know? There are just a lot more photos going on, and I don't think it's a bad thing. I know for me, when digital came out, it was such a lifesaver. Before, it was so expensive. Now with digital, you can cut your expenses and have a whole different way of editing your stuff. I think the generic, common pedestrian photographers just doing stuff for fun on the iPhone, that's what's really exploded.
Are there any particular feelings behind this specific body of work you'll be showing?
I got a call from [Peters Projects'] Mark Del Vecchio, and he thought since Maurice Burns has a nice big show in the main room that my stuff would be a good compliment. Maurice is an older black guy from Alabama, very raw and outsider-y, and he works in reference to music and jazz and black culture. Mark … thought it would be good to do a series on my more notable black musicians, so I put together a compilation of mostly black jazz musicians, a couple that aren't—and basically, it's a music portfolio. It starts actually with Basquiat; he played drums in an avant-garde jazz influenced band in NY back around 1979-1980 called Gray. I'll tell you something, the jazz people were always the coolest to work with; the most relaxed, the most respectful. Look, when I started, I felt like I had pretty high standards, and I never wanted to do something that wasn't long-lasting. I wanted the work to really stand out. Doing it 40 years now, there is a renewed respect for the work because it stood the test of time, and I'm happy to say that.