Picturing Prince: Steve Parke talks about his 13 years taking photos of the pop icon
Steve Parke was Prince’s official photographer between 1988 and 2001. This 13 year relationship saw Steve get a unique take on the late singer, forming a bond and friendship with him, while taking in the region of 500 pictures of the iconic star. To coincide with the recent launch of Steve’s fantastic photobook, London’s Proud Galleries is hosting Picturing Prince: Photographs by Steve Parke, an exhibition that showcases rare and intimate prints he took in his time with the flamboyant showman, capturing the man behind the mask as well as his on stage rockstar persona. Steve recently took the time to share some wonderful stories of his years at Paisley Park, how the images were born, Prince playing him unreleased tracks and even going bowling with the star and being wowed by his striking purple prowess on the lanes.
The MALESTROM: Tell us about your first meeting with Prince?
Steve Parke: When I started off with him it was not doing photography, I was asked to work on a set that he was shooting a video on, he wanted the top of the set painted. There was another company doing it but it wasn’t working. Prince was leaving for France in like three hours, I was like ‘what! Three hours, ok,’ you know. So it was figuring out what I’m going to do here. So I ran around Paisley Park getting a sense of what he was into. I didn’t even have markers or pencils with me, so I eventually found some and a piece of scrap cardboard out of a trash can and drew it. So he looked at it and approved it and off to France he went.
I wondered what had happened with the other art, it turned out the company that was doing it, was doing it in layers and he wasn’t seeing the big picture, so he just saw that and thought this isn’t working. So I knew I had to show him the big picture. I hired a couple of people to help me out, stayed up for three days straight and got a part of the stage done. He came back, I heard absolutely nothing, which freaked me out. I asked my friend Levi, he was the one who hooked me up with Prince initially, I said ‘did you hear anything’? He said, ‘well no.’ Then he said, ‘did he say anything to you?’ I said, ‘no.’ So he says, ‘well then your good, just keep going.’ I was like, ‘ok.’ (Laughs) That’s how it is here, you hear nothing and everything is good. It was a serious trial by fire first time around.
Once that happened he gave me opportunities from there to do all kinds of stuff. I mean that’s how I ended up doing photography for him really. It was all just evolution, he’d say ‘can you do this’ and it was like, ‘sure.’ Every time he gave me something to do and saw I could do it, he’d give me more responsibility and opportunity. That’s something I found to be true talking with past employees there, especially after he passed away, because we all got together to celebrate his life and talk and get some perspective in ways we couldn’t when we were working for him. It was interesting to hear everybody’s stories were like that, ‘well I started out here and he had me do this and this.’ We weren’t necessarily aware that was how it worked for everybody. If he saw something in you, he would give you opportunities, which is fantastic.
TM: So it was a trust thing for him to a degree?
SP: Absolutely. I mean when people ask me about my photography they say he seemed very relaxed around you. I’d already been with him… lets see I started in 88′ so by 97′, so ten, eleven years, I’d already been doing lots of stuff with him, hanging out and all that. So by the time we were taking photos it was just like get the camera and we’re going to go and take some pictures.
TM: Your images of him are quite intimate. Was he quite open with you? Did you have that kind of relationship?
SP: Yeah we did. I mean it’s relative. He tended to be guarded in general. I can imagine that anyone with that status as a pop culture icon has a little bit of that going on no matter what. But when we were out at Paisley Park it was very casual. But even on the road, I went to see his shows when he was in town, he’d tell me to come with him and show him something. I definitely think that relationship is what informed how those pictures ended up coming out. Because it was just he and I, I think there was only maybe one photo shoot where there was anyone else with us. I mean even hair and makeup, he came ready, he came dressed. There was never a big team of people, as there often would be in a photo shoot for an international pop star.
TM: A lot has been said about him being quite quiet off stage, was he softly spoken?
SP: It depended on the day. When we were working at night, he’d literally be sitting right behind me or right next to me and we were chatting, he didn’t have to be loud then that’s for sure. He was also really funny, he’d crack me up at times and sometimes you’d hear him in the hallway being loud. It just depended on what was going on. My experience of him 90% of the time, he was just a guy I was doing stuff with. You definitely got those days when he came in and it’d be like ‘oh you’re Prince today,’ for whatever reason.
I saw interesting things with how he dealt with other people coming in, maybe another musician or whatever, maybe he was appearing with them. He definitely acted differently with them. With women he had a little different thing going on. If he was making a presentation, or trying to get you on his side for something he wanted to do, that was a little different. I said in many ways he had a great seduction technique, in that he could really get you on board with something, then he would walk out of the room and it’d be like ‘what did I just agree to? (laughs).
TM: Ha. So he could be quite persuasive?
SP: Absolutely! I often joke that I think it was the eyelashes. Those things were amazing. He’d bat those things at you and it’d be like, ‘ok whatever you want’ (laughs). I definitely saw him as a regular guy most of the time, but when I say that it was also kind of like hanging out with your boss. The boss can be a great friend, but when it comes down to business you may feel like most people do towards there bosses. But, in saying that, one of the things about Prince was, you might be in the moment thinking ‘oh my god, I’m so tired, I’m doing so many hours.’ He’s been up way longer than I have, he’s been running round in his studio recording, rehearsing, coming up and hanging out with me working on stuff. I have no right to complain. You had to respect him to. That’s what set him apart. Prince was not just a musician, he was the boss, he was the CEO, he was the product and he was a person. So you have to be responsible for all those things, all the time, which is crazy. I may have a hard job out here because he demands a lot, but I have one thing to do for the main part, but the responsibility he had!
TM: So he controlled his empire, rather than having lots of minions do his bidding?
SP: Absolutely. He was very hands on. I mean like I’ve said we were friends and talked like friends, but there were days when he needed things done and that’s when he treated you more like an employee, because you in fact were an employee. There were some days when he’d come in and you’d feel like that was the rockstar guy you see on TV (laughs).
TM: Did you ever get starstruck by him?
SP: I had moments, but I also had to keep that in check. When I first met him I realised I was just going to have to be really straightforward, because there’s no way you’d be able to do what you’re doing if you’re sat there thinking ‘oh my god what am I doing.’ I mean every day was like that cause you had things that were sort of out of this world you’d have to do. So you couldn’t stop and think about it. Every once in a while there’d be something funny. One time he ran into my office, he was working on a video shoot – bare in mind his wardrobe is right across from me, he ran in and pointed to his back and he turned around and the zipper on his outfit was stuck about halfway up and he wanted to fix it. So I just said ‘ok’ and zipped it up and he walked out.
SP: I was like ‘that was really weird! I just zipped up Prince’s outfit.’ I guess I was someone he felt comfortable with and there was no one in the wardrobe department at the time to do that. It’s not super intimate, but kind of intimate having someone zip you up. So stuff like that could make you go wow, but then you had to be like ‘ok I have things to do.’ You don’t have time to dwell on anything like that.
TM: Talking of intimate, the shot Both Sides Now is certainly that. What was the story behind that?
SP: That was in his house in Marbella. We were shooting all over the house and at one point, which is funny when I think about it, he said, ‘do you want to go shoot some pictures in the bedroom?’ (laughs). So they were in there and I realised I could shoot up into the mirror on the ceiling, they just kind of lay there, it was fun. Later when we looked back through them Prince was like, ‘I’m wearing her pyjama bottoms,’ and he was, the only difference were her pyjama bottoms and top had ruffles on the sleeves and his were straight. He had me photoshop them for what he was doing with them, but I left them that way, I thought it was kind of cool the way they actually were.
TM: It must have been proud the moment he made you his official photographer?
SP: Well it’s interesting. He basically found out that digital cameras were a new thing, and he said, ‘have you heard of them?’ And I was like, ‘no.’ And he said, ‘can you shoot photos?’ And I said ‘yes’ because I had. I’d done college and high school, I’d shot photos a lot so I knew what I was doing, maybe not on that level. Of course when I heard, I thought, ‘o boy this is another thing I need to learn how to do (laughs), I have to produce.’ So I picked up the camera, picked up some strobes, I’d never used them before, all I wanted was a reasonably well exposed photo and it was fine, but it wasn’t super contrasty, it had no style to it. So the first thing he looked at was, ‘we need more light.’ And I try and explain to him I can open the aperture a little more, or do this. He didn’t want to hear it, so we ended up working with a 10k movie light, that’s what we used for quite a while, it was too much light. It was a little bit nuts to do it that way.
In answer to the question there was never any time to go ‘oh this is so great that i’m doing this.’ I suppose it was when I saw one of the first pictures published before it sunk in. Putting this book together… I hadn’t really looked at them as a collection, probably ever to be honest. So when I was doing that it was really interesting, because obviously it reminded me of doing it, how cool it was. I kept thinking I wish I had an umbrella and some flashes, I wish I had some fill light (laughs), I wish I had a better camera (laughs)! You know. Of course the fact that he passed away makes it that much harder as well.
TM: Of course.
SP: When I got my copy of the book in the mail I gave it to my son and said I want you to look through it. He said, ‘don’t you want to look at it?’ And I said, ‘I don’t.’ I couldn’t right away, honestly. It was hard for me to look at. Eventually I did and was very pleased with it, but it was a hard thing to look at in context. People say you must me so excited and yes, but what I’d rather be doing is waiting for his next album to come out.
TM: Tell us about the Untitled shot with Prince walking through the reeds…
SP: That was just outside Paisley. My office was on the 2nd floor, from there I could see that all the time, there was a little pond back there with those reeds. We were shooting on this other part of the lawn and he was in this big wooden chair. He went back in and changed and came back out and we were going to shoot around the front of the building, but I said could we shoot over there first and he said sure. So we walked over, I knew I wanted him in them, like back in them, but I also knew it was swampy back there. So I kept asking if he could step back a little further, I kind of want you in there. He’d be like, ‘Is this good,’ I’d be like, ‘A little further’ and I could hear his heels squishing in the mud (laughs), he kept walking back anyway and I was lucky enough to get the shot right there. I wanted to take advantage of the fact that, to me, when he got outside his demeanour changed, rather than being inside and dealing with the day-to-day he had to deal with and just relax, which was really nice.
TM: Did he play you much music? Was there anything you heard of his that was never released to the public?
SP: Oh yeah, yeah. He was pretty generous with bringing me into the studio. He would call me and say, ‘hey come down to the studio.’ The first time I didn’t know why, I was thinking what did I do you know. He just gestured me in, he was laying down a guitar track and talking to me at the same time. So he’d play me stuff, he’d bring me cassettes that they’d just made, back in the days when they still made them, and he’d play one, play a new song for me or whatever. And then I’d think, ‘this is cool I can’t wait to hear it on the album,’ and it wasn’t on the album.
One time he’d brought me down, I’d complimented him on his vocal arrangements, because I said I didn’t think people gave him credit for his arrangements, because they were really unique and they kind of got buried underneath everything else because he had so much music inside of his music. I said to him that his vocal arrangements were really stunning and he said ‘oh thank you.’ Well a couple of years later he brought me down to the studio and said he wanted me to hear something. It was kind of dark and there were some candles going and he played me this beautiful acapella track called Mindblown, it was short but was really beautiful and I thought this was going to probably be on The Truth (Crystal Ball) album, but it never got on there. I listened to the lyrics and it was pretty… It was kind of about loneliness and not having anything occupying your time, there was a line,
“It’s so quiet, I can hear my hair grow”
It was very intimate to him, I think sometimes he would do that stuff and then second guess it and be like, ‘that’s too much, that’s too much. I’m saying too much about me.’ But it still is amazing to have a response like that, I was just complimenting him on something I thought was good and told him and then next thing I know he’s recorded the song which is essentially exactly what I was talking about and he shared it with me.
TM: That’s amazing. Did he strike you as a lonely person? Obviously he was very careful with the people he selected around him.
SP: I don’t know about loneliness. I think when you’re someone so deep into the creative aspect of what you do, you definitely want people to do things with, but this is my opinion. I think it would be very hard for him sometimes to work with people because of the speeds he worked at. The kind of ways he created was like a landslide, it just kept coming and coming and crushed everything underneath it. I was grateful I was not a musician in his band, cause keeping up with him, even for the engineers or me, trying to keep up with him was tough. He could come out of the studio having expended all this energy and then want to come hang out with me and do all this visual stuff. I think that was where his brain was at, I can only imagine in between all that, what creeps in? I think it’s hard when you’re on that kind of level and you don’t have a group that you necessarily consider to be a peer group. You may have fragments, but you need a lot of people around to fill those roles and I don’t know he always had that. I don’t know he didn’t, but I don’t know he always did. Plus he didn’t sleep.
TM: Tell us about another of your pictures Moon in the Mirror. It’s a great shot, how did that come about?
SP: Well that was interesting. He had this orange outfit on and ear cuffs and he had a big butterfly clip in his hair, which was cool. It was funny, nothing was super heavily planned most of the time, we walked onto the soundstage and there was some stuff being taken down, like half of a mirrorball on a box and a little mirror that you’d check your outfit in. And he was checking his outfit and I was like, ‘you looking in the mirror is really cool, lets try some of those,’ so we did and it worked. It was all mostly spur of the moment.
TM: So many were happy accidents?
SP: Right. Exactly. The thing about Paisley Park is there are tons of cool places to shoot, inside and out, so it made it pretty easy. People hadn’t really seen inside of the building so it wouldn’t be like, ‘oh he’s taking pictures inside of Paisley Park again.’ Nowadays they’ll be events where people can walk through and get a sense of it, but back then, really nobody had seen it.
We went down to the (Chanhassen) Arboretum about five minutes down from Paisley and we hopped in his car and went down there, when you get into a place like that there’s just beautiful images everywhere. The cool thing is he had obviously kind of decided what areas he wanted to shoot in, cause he knew where to go. I later found out there were specific parts of the Arboretum that he liked to hang out in and visit, so this was a place he really liked and it got him away, outside, with no worries about time constraints. No one had a phone with a watch on it, or even a watch. We just shot and shot and shot out there, it was really nice.
TM: We have to talk about The Dawntreader, that’s one of our favourites. The look in his eye, it’s a very striking shot…
SP: That’s one of my favourites, it’s at the very end of my book. He’d come in wearing no make-up at all, hadn’t really shaved, hadn’t trimmed his eyebrows, he wasn’t looking his norm. When he had facial hair it was really specific, so I thought this look was cool. we didn’t end up using them for anything I can recall, but I liked that particular pose. He’s aware of what he’s doing, but he was coming at it with a real relaxed attitude, he wasn’t Prince the rockstar there.
TM: Did you get invited to the famous parties at Paisley Park?
SP: Oh yeah. Sometimes I’d be working upstairs and while they were going on I’d wonder down and grab some coffee, have a look around (laughs). I mean it’s a work environment and sure if I had my work done I would take a break. Sometimes he’d be on the soundstage and there might be a hundred people around there, I’d wander over and watch him for an hour then go back to work.
It’s funny cause every once in a while he’d see me in the audience and call me up to the stage… one time he was doing a performance in the Atrium, which is really small, there might have been 25-30 people there and they were filming it too. He was playing that keytar thing that he had, walking around with it and he comes over to me and starts talking to me about something we’d been working on in the daytime that he was really happy with, and I had friends there, he walked away and they were like, ‘oh my god, does this happen all the time?!’ And of course not exactly, but kind of (laughs). I went bowling with him and went to movies with him.
TM: Bowling with Prince! What was that like?
SP: It was like playing with a pro. He could throw a strike at will.
SP: It was Prince and Mayte, his wife at the time and Larry Graham and his wife and me. It was fun, Prince would pretty much strike every time. Everyone would clap and go ‘woooh’ and when I’d get a strike they’d cheer me and we’d all cheer for each other, it was really fun (laughs). It was two o’ clock in the morning.
TM: That’s an amazing mental image, Prince bowling…
SP: The thing is he didn’t wear the traditional bowling shoes. He had on these furry boots that start at the knee and go down, he wore those to bowl in. I guess the people that owned the bowling alley thought fine he can wear those.
TM: Is there one image that stands out that you took that captured Prince how you saw him.
SP: It’s the Dawntreader picture we talked about earlier, that’s honestly why I put it last in the book. It’s who I feel he was as a person. I felt it’s him as a musician, not the pop star if that makes sense. One night I was having a conversation with him on the phone and I’m thinking this guy is the biggest music nerd, If he hadn’t made it as a pop star he would have been the guy who just plays in town, works at a 7/11 for money and then goes and plays every night. Obviously he’s being a musician when he’s Prince the ‘pop star,’ but there’s also the aspect that this guy is an amazing player, an amazing musician, and then there’s that guy who puts on a giant show. That image represents the person I knew, the person I hung out with on a daily basis.