One of Steve Parke’s favorite photographs of Prince depicts the late musician “pretty scruffy” and unvarnished — at least for the famously put-together artist.
“I could tell he wasn’t wearing foundation makeup, which he always did. He was that whole package all of the time. I’m pretty sure he had eyeliner on, though. That was pretty much a given,” Parke said with a chuckle recently inside his Madison Park apartment and studio. “It’s about as raw as he got in a lot of ways.”
“Picturing Prince,” the Baltimore photographer’s new 240-page book, captures the artist the public never saw, but for whom Parke had a front-row seat as Prince’s art director for 13 years. Released in the U.S. on Tuesday, the hardcover collection features a wide array of color and black-and-white shots, including outtakes from various shoots, candid photos of Prince playing basketball and contemplative portraits that feed his mystique.
While Prince’s fame and talent afforded him elaborate sessions with sought-after photographers and professional crews, Parke’s images were often just the photographer and his subject, leading to the type of one-of-a-kind, intimate pictures fans cherish — particularly as they mourn Prince’s April 2016 death from an accidental fentanyl overdose.
“I love that part of what I see in these is his spontaneity,” said Parke, 53. “I was there, and he could go, ‘Let’s go do something.’ That’s what really makes these interesting to me, and I hope other people.”
It didn’t take long for Parke to develop a creative chemistry with Prince.
A Northern Virginia native and a huge fan of the musician, Parke entered Prince’s circle by making friends with members of his band as a concert photographer. They showed Parke’s work to Prince, who first hired Parke in 1988 at age 25 to paint a stage design for a music video set. In the ’90s, Parke was making $25,000 per year to fly to Prince’s Minnesota compound Paisley Park once a month to be his art director. There, Parke learned on the fly, designing tour T-shirts and covers for albums like “Emancipation” and “Crystal Ball,” on top of whatever other projects Prince was juggling.
One of pop music’s most talented figures, Prince thrilled fans with remarkable performances and era-defining anthems, but the enigmatic artist maintained privacy throughout his life. Parke, however, saw glimpses of Prince away from the limelight. He could be a regular guy, he said, picking up coffee and working the gas pump, but he was still an international pop star.
Parke recalled a bowling outing with Prince and some friends. There were cheers and high-fives after strikes, he said, and it was like going out with your high school buddies — for the most part.
“It really was normal on a lot of levels, except Prince was wearing these big snow boots,” Parke said. “I guess [the bowling alley] didn’t give him a hard time.”
The book has 50 vignettes like this — revealing windows into Prince’s life away from the awards shows and concerts written in Parke’s journal-like perspective. While Parke remembers renting out movie theaters for 3 a.m. private screenings and surprisingly intimate conversations about their lives, there was never a question of their distinct roles. Parke worked for Prince, which meant rules — like not calling Prince by his name when he changed it to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993 in response to a recording contract dispute — were rules.
“He wasn’t Prince anymore,” Parke said. “Out there [in Minnesota], most of us were like, ‘OK, fine. Why not?’ I was thinking, ‘You know what, who the hell else would do this?’”
But for all the quirks, a photographer could not have asked for a more photogenic subject. After working with other artists, Parke realized how good he had it with Prince.
“He knew how to move and work the camera,” said Parke, who has also shot David Bowie and Bob Dylan, among others. “If he was in a flow, I wouldn’t say anything. I let him do his thing.”
In the foreword to the book, Sheila E., another artist Prince provided a platform for, writes that “Picturing Prince” offers “a glimpse of so much more than Prince the celebrity.”
“Steve has once more given us images and messages that not only support the public Prince persona but also reveal the real person that some of us were so very fortunate to know,” she writes.
And to think, “Picturing Prince” almost never came to fruition. Friends urged Parke to put together a book after Prince’s death but he was resistant. Reconnecting with a colleague from his art director days — and learning the friend, Michael Van Huffel, was in an expensive battle against chronic fatigue syndrome — pushed Parke to do it. He later donated one-third of the signing bonus he received from his publisher to Van Huffel.
For Parke, the book was an exercise in catharsis, too. He quit his gig with Prince in 2001 to travel less and spend more time with his son. Parke sensed Prince felt betrayed, and their relationship was never the same. While any hard feelings eventually subsided, at least in Parke’s mind, revisiting his work with Prince allowed Parke to better process his death.
“About halfway through the book, I said, ‘I’m definitely glad I’m doing this,’ because it helped me reflect back,” Parke said, “and then hopefully there’s a bit of something that other people resonate with and it helps them in some way.”
Parke said he hopes the book gives readers a better understanding of the person behind the larger-than-life persona.
Perhaps most crucial to Parke is that Prince — who quietly donated to many causes, and performed a tribute concert in Freddie Gray’s memory in Baltimore in 2015 — cared deeply for others, and was willing to take chances on people, Parke included.
Despite having access to whatever resources Prince wanted, “he essentially fostered new talent,” Parke said. “He saw something, and gave you your opportunity. He let you make your choices in how far you wanted to push it. I think that’s an incredible rarity in this world.”
If you go
Steve Parke’s “Picturing Prince” book tour stops at Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road, Hampden, on Sept. 14, 7-9 p.m. Free. For more information on the event, call 410-662-4444 or go to atomicbooks.com. The book, published by Cassell, is available for $24.99.