Before pursuing a career in portrait photography, shooting subcultures around the world – Australia, Haiti, Lapland, Mexico, Morocco, and the Philippines – American photographer William Coupon found himself at Studio 54, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s legendary nightclub. Those who attended, despite its short-lived run of 33 months following a tax and drug scandal, included the likes of Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Diana Ross, Bianca Jagger, and every other luminary of the 1970s you can name; it was the place to be and everyone wanted in.
Fortunately for Coupon, he befriended the doorman. “I don’t know why he liked me, but he let me in,” he says, while reflecting on the club’s seductive opulence and strict exclusivity. Well-known for its door policy, even the best and most interestingly dressed would sometimes be turned away – but that was part of the magic. “You had to have an entry there and it was very difficult to get in,” he adds. “I wish there was a place like that today; it was spectacular and unlike anywhere I’d ever been to. Everything was to the utmost decadence, and the people loved it. It was the whole scene to get in.”
Coupon grew up in Washington DC and now resides in Santa Fe. During the late 70s, though, he gravitated towards Manhattan. “As soon as I knew that New York existed, there was no other place to go in my life. I wanted to be somebody – although I’m not sure who that somebody was.” That somebody is what he would now describe as a “voyeur”, rather than a photographer.
But being a voyeur has its difficulties: during his three-week and eight-night stint at the club, Coupon took hundreds of photographs and, like most image-makers would, decided to collate these images into a book. With American novelist Truman Capote on board, it seemed like an easy win – but this wasn’t the case. “All of a sudden, Steve Rubell and his bodyguards had thrown me out,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what he thought about my work, but he had these guys throw me out in the rain and my camera smashed across the street. I remember being on the pavement thinking, ‘well, I’m done’ – and I never went back. That was it. I got the pictures and I didn’t have to do anymore.”
After this, he moved his attention to the Mudd Club – a renowned punk rock venue in the Tribeca area of New York – as well as shooting portraits of people such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Carter. Upon reflection though, his Studio 54: Disco Tribes series has had a profound influence on his work – more than he’d initially given it credit for. “Studio 54, in my opinion, is ironically quite portrait-like, with a style that takes people and isolates them in their environment,” he says. “I like to think that what I did was a great reflection on the decadence that existed then. I’m happy with that.”
Tenderbooks and Rare Photo Gallery (Toronto) are currently exhibiting 14 portraits from Studio 54: Disco Tribes. On view at Tenderbooks, London, until June.