Arts & Culture

Photographer Steve Parke Talks About Chronicling Prince

The Baltimore artist captures The Purple One in new book.

You shot literally thousands of pictures of Prince, starting in 1997. How did you ever pick what was going to go in the book?
I went through the images I had and started to really look at what, to me, was worth showing. There’s a combination of things here. One was that the technology in the cameras back then was not the best. These were really early digital cameras and they were meant to be used with flashes, and the nature of working for Prince is that we weren’t ever really that organized. It was like, “Let’s just do this,” and there wasn’t a lot of structure to the process. It was my first attempt to use strobes, so I set them up, and all I cared about was getting a well-exposed photo. It was correctly exposed, but there was no drama to it, it was very flat . . . There were inherent issues to my eye with the photos, and I wanted to make sure that I could fix that as I could, and fortunately, contemporary technology allows you to do some of that. And also what I thought would be interesting to people – what I would consider the best shot would not be as interesting because it didn’t reveal as much about Prince as a person, if that makes sense. I tried to look for stuff that would be interesting to people, and, of course, good photos. So that was my selection process.

Were there ever times for you when you would look around and think, what the heck am I doing here?
Over time, you almost couldn’t do that because it would be like if you were driving on the highway at 70 miles an hour, and all of a sudden thinking, oh my god, why am I doing this? I’m hurtling along inside this thing that could crash and I’m manipulating this thing,” and then you’d forget how to drive and just crash your car. It was the same feeling with Prince. I couldn’t stop too much and look at it because it would freak me out. Once I met Prince, which was a big hurdle in the sense that I just had to be cool about it, then everything from there on out, was like, Ok, this is the way thing’s are, we’re going to do things that you don’t get to do in normal life. He’s going to ask me to do things that are seemingly ridiculous to an outside person, but I’m just going to do it, and do it the best I can. I talk a little bit about when he was doing the most beautiful girl in the world video, and he comes running into my office and gestures to his back. And when he turns around, I can see he couldn’t get his zipper up, and I’m like, ok, I’m zipping up Prince’s outfit. It’s a weird moment where first, you’re helping someone with their clothing, which is fine, but then you look at it in context and it’s like he came in because he’s comfortable with me. Those are the moments that are a little surreal. 

Were there ever times that you were starstruck by him?
Most of my starstruck moments with him were watching him perform. He would play out of Paisley Park a lot. I could be right up next to him in the studio and he’s laying down a guitar track and I could be like, oh, that’s really cool, just like he was some friend of yours who’s playing the guitar for you. But he could be on stage in the back of Paisley Park with a crowd of 100 to 200 people or on the soundstage with 700 people and when he was on stage, just watching him was like, Oh my god, this guy is so good. You just couldn’t help but see that no matter what. A couple of times he called me out from the stage. He saw me and said something over the microphone, and of course, nobody knew what the hell he was talking about but me. And it broke that weird moment of, “whoa I’m watching Prince.”

What was the different between him on stage and off stage?
On stage, everything he did he did confidently. I’d see them do sound checks, and there were things that didn’t go as planned, but he was a professional and sometimes they’d stop and fix the problem, and sometimes they’d just go right through. You couldn’t tell if it was a mistake because he had such a mastery of music and the stage. The difference in him off stage, and dealing with him on a personal level, was that he was like everyone you know—he was a little cocky about what he did (laughs), he would discuss world events, and in some instances he was a little vulnerable about his past and opened up to me about his childhood. It was kind of like what do you say to that? It’s hard because you’re in a little bit of an odd position because it’s not just someone you’re friends with, it’s more, like you’re my boss and I’m just going to listen. He was very quiet off stage. I could hear him pretty well all the time, but he talked in a register that would make people ask, “Did you hear what he said?” I’m not kidding, he has this frequency where he spoke sometimes that he could speak at a normal level and it was hard to hear. But people in the same room as me, when he left, would say, what was he talking about? 

And I’m sure no one wanted to ask him to repeat himself.
Yeah, you didn’t want to go down that path. 

I know there’s been depictions of Prince, on Chappelle’s Show, for example, that show how quiet he was.
You want to know who does a really freaky imitation of Prince? Fred Armisen. The way he talks, the way he captures those little nuances… the first time I saw him do it, it gave me the chills. I mean, in person, Prince wasn’t whispering in someone’s ear to pass along a message like in the skit. Jaime Foxx does it pretty good too, and he even gets the voice down. I think people always assume that Prince spoke in a high voice because he did a lot of falsetto, but he was totally baritone.

Do you have favorite Prince moments?
Obviously, moments like when he talked to me about what I was going to name my son. Part of it is that I was having the conversation with someone I knew, with no pretense that he was my boss, or Prince, or any of that. Going bowling with Prince was fun. But some of the times that I was doing that I would be mildly delirious because I hadn’t slept much because I had been working so hard and it would be at 2 in the morning. He was just nailing strike after strike after strike and people were clapping for him and clapping for everybody, even me when I got a strike. It’s kind of hard to top that stuff. And I had a lot of those moments that were like, wow, that was really cool.