When you think of Prince a few things may spring to mind.
The colour purple, the Love Symbol that replaced his name and inspired the shape of his guitars, the falsetto voice, the flamboyant clothes, maybe just his perfectly sculpted face.
In being an iconic pop star Prince became a brand in himself, any one of the things just listed could stand in as synonymous for the artist and his style.
But equally all of these things are fairly surface-level, they represent Prince as the performer, the icon.
His death in April last year left thousands of grieving fans, over a hundred songs and countless tributes dedicated to his memory, yet it seems we’ve barely scratched the surface of his polished image.
As an artist renowned for an unwavering tight control over his own representation, any opportunity to see what he was like beneath the veneer is eagerly snatched.
Such an opportunity is offered by Steve Parke’s book Picturing Prince, and the coinciding exhibition at Proud Galleries of the same name.
Parke began working for Prince in 1988 when he was 25 years old, recruited to help paint sets and design T-shirts, tour programmes and merchandise.
The 1990 album Graffiti Bridge featured his painting, and after being made art director he went on to design album covers for Emancipation and Crystal Ball.
The collaboration lasted 13 years in total, with the final 4 seeing Parke becoming Prince’s official photographer.
His book acts as part memoir, part photographic portrait with over 200 pages of pictures interspersed with 50 vignettes about life and work with the artist.
The photographs show Prince as we know him — a sleek professional with an intense sense of self-awareness, but Parke’s anecdotes offer a more human side to the singer, and a fuller understanding of the work that went into the construction of the myth of Prince.
Here’s Verdict’s Q&A with Steve Parke
Seeing as you knew Prince for so long, was this an emotional exhibition for you?
It’s still tough. I noticed at the exhibition opening that I didn’t really look at the pictures, I realised I was avoiding them. Though I took it in as a whole I didn’t want to look at the images too hard.
Even when I got my copy of the book I couldn’t look at it right away, I just let it sit for a while. You have to detach yourself a little bit to be able to answer people’s questions and put on the show, but sometimes when you think about the underlying reason for why any of it’s happening it’s actually rather difficult.
Saying that, doing the book was incredibly cathartic for me because working with him was a big slice of my life.
How well did you know Prince before he asked you to be his photographer?
I started in doing work for him in 1988, and I didn’t start photographing him until 1996 or 97, so I’d already been working for him for a long time.
Did you already know it was photography that you wanted to do?
Not at all. I was working as his art director and designer for his album, and one day he came in and asked me if I’d heard of digital cameras, and whether I could start taking pictures of him.
And that was it. For most shoots it was just the two of us as we were just playing around with the camera, a lot of it was trial-by-fire — learning how to load the camera, process images, how to light him.
The fact that it was just the two of us made it much more relaxed.
What were you hoping to show with your book?
The whole idea behind the book was generated by posting things through my Facebook page after he passed away, and the fans really reacted strongly to it and were happy to have things that gave them a little more understanding into who he was as a person.
People often don’t think of him as a real, human person who worked really really hard. I think what he did underscores human potential, and one of the things I find is that people get wrapped up in the myth of Prince and don’t understand that they can do it too.
I just worry that people build others up to a point where they think they could never achieve it, even though it’s entirely possible if you want it.
Do you think he was trying to convey a certain image with the photographs?
He had a dedication to being the idea of Prince.
He was definitely someone who was so influential on pop culture for so long, you can’t help but have to think that way a little bit. Unfortunately I feel like even if you make a decision to be like ‘I’m going to be really down to earth now’ – that in itself is a choice. You can’t just be yourself without thinking about the consequences of what being yourself will look like.
But saying that, I do believe it was all still him. If most people wore the clothes he did, it would be a costume, that would be something worn on purpose to make a point. But he didn’t – the truth is that him in jeans and a t-shirt would be him putting on something that wasn’t him.
Did you see a particular difference between when you were taking pictures and when you were just hanging out?
He was really funny, and generally very chatty, but as soon as we started taking pictures that would stop.
He took that part of himself – his image and how he presented himself – pretty seriously. It’s all about what he wanted to represent, and though being goofy was definitely a part of him, I felt like he wasn’t quite comfortable with that side of him yet. But that changed over time, like on Jay Leno’s show he was pulling pranks and doing all these silly things that was way more like him.
But I think there was context also – he was on a show, he’s goofing around with a guy who’s a comedian. Whereas a photo of you doing something weird, people react differently. But with most musicians of a certain calibre you don’t often see them outright smiling, and if they are they’re smiling with intent. There’s a reason for it. I think a lot of that stuff is more crafted than people realise, and if you smile a lot in your pictures, that’s something you’re trying to give off to people, the idea that you’re happy and upbeat.
One thing I heard in theatre college was that ‘when you go to perform, you have to bring something other than yourself, because nobody pays to see you.’ It’s harsh but it’s true. People want something special and different, and being aware of this fact means you have to bring this constant energy with you. Prince worked really hard because he knew he had to deliver.
As good of a musician as he was, he felt he needed to bring more than just his music skills. For a lot of people that might have been enough, but he didn’t see it that way.
There was an idea in the exhibition about a sense of gender fluidity and sexual expression. How did this come across in person?
I can’t speak to how seriously he took it, whether he was aware or whether it was just fun to do, because remember he was pretty young.
Of course, Bowie was like that too – but as he got older he went in a different direction that was still interesting but not really pushing that particular edge of things.
Prince was definitely someone who was a great seducer in the way he worked and engaged with people. He could bring you in on something and convince you it was the best thing ever, it was only once he left the room that you realised what he was really saying. He also had this sexuality that just oozed out of him. It was interesting because of course, I didn’t have that perception of him when we were working but I could see it turn on when he needed it.
I don’t know that he was aware of it, I just think it was some part of who he was and he knew that when he did that, even if it was completely unconscious, it worked.
How did you decide what pictures were going to make the cut?
I just chose the ones that were the best of the bunch, keeping in mind that he had gone through all the pictures we’d taken and picked all of them.
So there’s nothing in there that he hadn’t already approved of, which made it much easier for me.
Do you have a favorite shot of Prince?
There’s one I love that’s the final photo in the book. He had purposefully come in with no makeup and unshaven. Usually his hair and his makeup were very specific, and I like that this particular shot has something that you don’t see all the time.
It has the impression of ‘this is who I am, and this is what I really look like’. Going through the book I notice so many others that I love, but that one is still one of my favourites.