Exclusive Interview! Steve Parke on Picturing Prince

Exclusive Interview! Steve Parke on Picturing Prince

Your book ‘Picturing Prince: An Intimate Portrait’ is out on the 6th of April, could you introduce us to the book?

The book is a collection of images I have taken of Prince (naturally), many of them never before seen. Along with the images are some stories about my time working with him, hopefully shedding light on him as a person and also showing the genius and hard work that was a part of who he was. He was also pretty funny, sometimes goofy, so I tried to share that part of him as well. It can be surprising to people that he was, sometimes, just a normal guy. (Not usually, but sometimes!)

How did you select the photos that would appear in the book?

I went through what I had – all approved by Prince along the way – and pulled what I thought would create an interesting narrative visually. I then let my publisher go through all my images and work with their designer to string them together. Then I went back to them with some minor changes. It was nice to work collaboratively with other artists who weren’t as familiar with the photos as I was. It helped create a fresh and interesting flow to the images I picked.

I understand there are accompanying stories/anecdotes with the photos? Do you have a favourite story from the book?

Yes. But I don’t want to sway anyone else’s enjoyment by hinting at it! Let’s just say it involves my son (he’s 16 now but was born while I was working with Prince) and Prince’s very specific ideas about the importance of names.

Who choreographed the shoots? Was it more driven by Prince or yourself?

He always came dressed and called the time and location, but I feel like the nature of the then-new technology allowed for a lot of spontaneity and experimentation versus film (we were shooting with brand-new digital cameras). So in the end it was a collaborative effort. More often than not I think we were more trying out the “look” he was heading toward, and shooting off the cuff, than we were aiming for a specific end goal. Remember that the instant gratification of digital cameras was brand new; Prince was used to flying a photographer in and seeing the end result weeks later. So he was excited to be able to just head out in the woods and see what happened.

For the photography buffs out there, did you use medium format or a standard camera? Which lenses did you use?

Standard – it was a 35mm DCS-460 Nikon with a Kodak digital attachment on the bottom. I could not even guess at what lenses, other than the likelihood they were also Nikons. Imagine your phone camera, and you would actually have a better camera in that little package than that high-end camera we used 20 years ago, save for the lens.

You will have seen the advent of digital photography during your career, did you embrace it or do you prefer film?

Totally embraced it. I have no desire to spend time developing film or prints in a traditional manner ever again. Probably because I did a fair amount of it.

Coming from a painting background what you can do with a photographic image in digital age is pretty endless, and I love that. And Prince loved it too, as I mentioned. Instant results! He’d stand behind me as I sorted through the photos, making comments on each one. Plus he could have me delete anything he didn’t like, and that was a real luxury for him. (Though he’d sometimes want to go back to a shot he’d had second thoughts about, and I’d have to explain that I couldn’t get it back!)

How did you first come to work with Prince?

I was a huge music nerd (still am) and spent time photographing bands at the local basketball arena/music venue in DC called the Capital Center. Through that I met bassist Levi Seacer Jr., who ended up working with Prince and showing my artwork to him. I was painting a lot back then, very photo-realistic stuff, mostly of musicians. One day Alan Leeds called me out of the blue, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane from Baltimore to Minneapolis.

How did the working relationship develop over time?

It seemed anything he asked me to try – I did. I started out painting a stage set, but ended up doing all kinds of things – designing album covers, jewelry, parties, you name it. I started taking photos only because he asked one day if I could. “Sure!” I said. That’s what I always said.

He kept pushing me to try more and more new things artistically. Which was a fantastic opportunity that I can’t imagine many other artists of his stature giving to someone. But he was known for that. Someone could be hired to handle a specific part of the building and quickly end up managing the whole place. If he believed in you, he’d give you every opportunity to show what you could do.

I understand you also worked on stage design and album cover art such as Graffiti Bridge?

Yes. Graffiti Bridge was an example of something I had already done that fit his vision at the time – so it was pretty synchronistic artistically. That took me 8 months to paint by hand and when he saw it he decided to use it for his new album. I was pretty excited, as you can imagine!

The video for the Glam Slam set was the first job I did for him in 1988, and I eventually ended up designing sets and the interiors of Paisley Park with him. I took a tour of the studios a few months ago and was surprised to see that much of it still there. I hadn’t been inside Paisley Park since 2001!

Of the work you did with Prince, what were you most proud of?

Wow. Tough question.

I think I’m most proud of the length of time I spent working with him. Because it meant that I was evolving enough in what I did to have him keep me on board and that he trusted me enough to continue creating parts of the visual representation of his art. It was an honor, to have his trust like that and to be brought into so many mind-blowing projects. I mean, sometimes I’d be working late at night in my office and he’d be downstairs in the atrium playing his piano, as the doves down the hall cooed along.

Prince was known to work all hours and call his band to record at any hour of the day, did this also apply to your work?

Yes. Absolutely. We spent many a loooong night behind my monitor, working side by side. The upside is that he’d often call me into the studio to hear what he’d been creating that day, and I heard a great deal of material that was never released, for whatever reason. Often it’d just be me, Prince and his sound engineer Hans, working through the night.

Prince was known to be practical joker – ever on the receiving end?

Fortunately no, because he was pretty ruthless with his practical jokes. And with my general lack of sleep due to our relentless schedule I might have not reacted well. I did hear him prank answer the main phone lines at Paisley Park, which at night would ring throughout the building.

If so, did you give as good as you got?

I do think I kept him laughing a fair amount. I got punchy as the hours went on and often said some stuff I might have usually kept to myself (he may have been sitting right next to me but he still was the guy writing me checks for my work). Fortunately I never stepped too far with the content of said humor.

You’ve also worked with other musicians such as Bowie, AC/DC & Bob Dylan – outside of Prince who was the most memorable to work with?

The most memorable was probably Paul McCartney. Not because I spent a ton of time with him, but because my voice cracked like a teenager when I met him, and I had to mentally pinch myself because … Paul McCartney. I’m sure he recalls it differently. As in – not at all.

Have you ever been starstruck?

See aforementioned Beatle, Leader of Wings, Sir Paul. Though I have to admit Stevie Wonder had me unable to say much. Anyone who knows me will tell you that is an awesome power. I rarely have nothing to say.

Working with different personalities, extroverts and introverts – how do you put people at ease and get the most out of them for a photoshoot?

Mostly I try and get them to not think about what we’re doing. Or in the case of an introvert I tell them to put on a character. Probably the thing I try to do most is get the shoot over as soon as possible. With rare exceptions people don’t really enjoy the process. My goal is to get the shots as quickly as possible, show them some images, make sure they’re happy, and then fix any issues in post. Working with Prince on the fly as we did for all those years – without even the proper lighting for most of the time, and all kinds of other issues — I had to become very good in post.