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Steve Parke’s Picturing Prince
All images © Steve Parke

Preview a new book of unpublished Prince photos

Art director-turned-photographer Steve Parke collaborated with Prince from the late 80s until the early 00s – here he speaks about his time with the late icon

When Prince died on April 21, 2016, the world would never be the same. More than an artist, Prince was the living embodiment of the American Dream. One part innovator, one part iconoclast, Prince took pleasure in subverting expectations and trouncing them with a mastery that belied a singular genius and an incomparable soul.

In 1988, Steve Parke joined the team at Paisley Park after he seized hold of an opportunity and ran with it – for 13 years! Parke collaborated with Prince, helping to create the look of the man whose style and sound was ever-evolving. As art director, Parke was responsible for designing everything from album covers and set design to music videos and merchandise.

In a world where nothing was impossible, Parke found himself in the unexpected position of in-house photographer. In late 1997, as digital photography came to the fore, Parke taught himself everything he needed to know in order to meet the high standards for which Prince was known.

Over the next four years, they produced a stunning body of work, most of it never seen until now, with the publication of Picturing Prince (published by Octopus). Accompanying the images is a series of 50 remarkable vignettes written by Parke that pull back the curtain to reveal Prince: the man, the artist, the legend. Parke gives Dazed Digital a look at life inside the fabled halls of Paisley Park.

You were a fan of Prince long before you first met. What was it about him that spoke to you?

Steve Parke: When Prince came along, I loved that he took that genre-bending musicianship that was prevalent in a lot of R&B at the time, added a new twist and a new layer to it all, and the sound was like, “I haven’t heard anything like this before.”

I’d come home from school and go in my room, get a piece of sketch paper out and draw whatever musicians I was into at the time. And I’d listen to music while doing it. I loved being able to connect with it and being a part of it. It’s an opportunity to represent visually what the music is saying and I loved that.

This reminds me of the “Seeing Music” chapter of the book where you discuss the time you transformed one of the pictures from “The Holy River” video shoot with Photoshop, and when Prince saw it, he said, “You see this picture? That’s why I wrote this song.”

Steve Parke: When he walked in and said that, I was like, “What! Really?” That blew me away.

What was interesting about that was, we would mock up covers for his CD while he was still working on the CD. One time he told me he did that partially because he then looked at that album cover and thought, “Now I have to make music to go with that.” He liked having that sitting there as a place to focus and create.

The “Seeing Music” chapter sums up so much of your work for Picturing Prince. You are bringing us inside an extraordinary world, letting us in on the creative process. What was the inspiration for the book?

Steve Parke: It was weird going back through that stuff and churning it back up again – but the interesting part was talking to people I had worked with out there and getting a different perspective on my relationship with him. They were all like, “If anybody should write this story, you should. You were always really nice and got along. You weren’t a person that created drama. You had a good relationship with him.”

What were the challenges of making the book?

Steve Parke: The big picture of it was: here’s a guy that’s well known. He works hard. He works his people hard. That’s the hard part: keeping up, maintaining under a lot of pressure with someone who really wants to get stuff done, and just like working with any boss, that can be kind of contentious.

But I always came in with a positive attitude. What I was allowed to do and create doesn’t exist much of anywhere else. My brain just automatically goes to those things that were so amazing and special about it – like, “I pulled 48 hours but look what I did!” (Laughs).

I tried to bring that perspective to it. I was a fan of his music before I ever worked with him and I thought to myself, “What would it be like if I went back and told myself, ‘Hey, guess what you’re going to get to do?”” and to remember how exciting that would be. It was that, and just coming in with a respect for him. Everything flowed from that. I wasn’t real conscious of how I did it. My brain was just like, “I have to get this done.” (Laughs).

“I was a fan of his music before I ever worked with him and I thought to myself, ‘What would it be like if I went back and told myself, Hey, guess what you’re going to get to do?’” – Steve Parke

The vibe I get is he drove people as hard as he drove himself.

Steve Parke: To be fair, he could have easily picked up any photographer who is already amazing. What I’ve done since then has really evolved. But I did get a little perspective on my work that was, there’s an immediacy to it. Digital technology was new and he loved that, like: “Hey, no negatives – that’s great!”

Can you expand on that a little more?

Steve Parke: I think he felt that if the negatives existed, somehow the images could get out. It’s a control issue.

For him shooting digital was like, we shoot these, we put the card in the laptop, we delete the ones he doesn’t want and that’s it, we’re done. Because of that I got the impression that he was very relaxed about anything we did. It was also that very immediate thing, where we didn’t have to wait around; he didn’t have to wait two or three days for the film to come back. It was like how he recorded, being in his own studios, he could walk in and go record and then have someone work on it, check in. It’s all very in the moment.

How big is the archive?

Steve Parke: There’s a lot that’s not there because some of it, he got rid of it, but there’s a lot that he was cool with but over time they got dumped off the Paisley drives. It’s one of those things where people are like, “Oh you just back it up” but storage space was really expensive back then.

As far as the images I have, I think the total number is 500 photos total. It doesn’t mean they’re all worth seeing in my opinion. I’ve had people say are you going to do a second book but to me, I don’t (think so).

I like to say that a portrait of the photographer is their subject, and the more I looked at your photos, the more I see how Prince was with you. As much as he always controlled his image, I got a very strong sense of him letting down his guard. At what point did you get a glimpse of the person Prince was?

Steve Parke: When I started being more in-house. He would come into our office, and sit and crack jokes and hang out. It was interesting because we were getting things done but we were also sharing how we thought about things, music that we liked, things like that. He’d bring me down to the studio sometimes and show me what he was working on, literally while he was laying down a track on a rhythm guitar. I’d be standing outside the doors and he’d see me. He was literally in between the notes and his hand would do one of those gestures like come in and he’d go right back to it.

Later one of the engineers told me, “Do you know that he spent a lot more time with you in the studio than he did with pretty much anyone else?” and I asked, “What do you mean?” and he said, “Well he called you in a lot. I saw you in here a lot. Most of the musicians weren’t in here that much.”

That is so amazing! Underneath it all, the magic was who he was an artist. I’d love your insights into that.

Steve Parke: One of the photo shoots was for his acoustic guitar and we were just shooting while he was playing a bunch of blues songs, which was just great, and I always felt like that’s where he looked like he was in his element, this is where I should be, this is who I am.

One time we were on the phone late at night and my brain wanders and I thought, ‘I’m talking to a guy who, if he had to work a job at 7/11 during the day so he could gig at night, he’d do it because that’s what he needs to do.” The fact that he created all this stuff and got to this point, whatever fates allowed all that, Prince did it, he pulled it all together and he had the drive to do it but I also understood the real person could just be on stage and it was just about the music.

Picturing Prince by Steve Parke – published by Octopus – is available now