By Phoebe Ollerearnshaw
In an exclusive interview with Arts & Collections, photographer of the stars Steve Parke shares his experience working alongside legendary rock icon, Prince.
Steve Parke’s acclaimed photobook, Picturing Prince: An Intimate Portrait (2017), provides an honest glimpse into the life and individuality of one of the most revered rock stars ever known. The publication coincided with an exhibition of the same name that was held at Proud Galleries in London at the end of last year. Prince Rogers Nelson—better known simply as Prince—carved himself a lasting legacy through heartfelt and often forward-thinking music. He communicated messages of diversity and sexual expression via his wide vocal range, flamboyant persona and electric stage presence. Consequently, he has forever been immortalised in the hearts and minds of those who have been touched by his melodies.
Parke is an award-winning illustrator, designer and photographer who worked as Prince’s in-house art director for 13 years. After meeting in the late 80s at Paisley Park—the lucrative studio complex which was once described by Prince as a ‘creative mecca’—the two formed an immediate bond. ‘Looking back, I can certainly see that we must have clicked on some level because I fitted in right away,’ Parke remembers. The photographer was primarily employed by Prince to paint a stage for a video shoot. Recognising his potential, Prince granted him the opportunity to contribute to his projects and take on more responsibility. Soon, he became an integral part of Prince’s team.
During his long stint as art director, Parke’s tasks were interchangeable. He did everything from painting sets and personalising guitars to designing album covers and organising impromptu photoshoots. What is painstakingly obvious from Parke’s account is that Prince retained an unwavering dedication to his craft. There was an expectation for his team to commit their lives to transform his visions into reality: ‘It was a lot of really hard work, to be honest, it was like he had no downtime,’ Parke remembers. This commitment included long working hours and spontaneous assignments that kept Parke on his toes. Recalling the impulsive nature of the role, Parke said, ‘I’ve kind of put it in an almost Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory kind of idea […] you’d never know what’s going to happen on a given day.’
Prince was defined by his unbridled imagination and Parke recollects this distinctively. ‘It was very difficult to keep up with him because his energy levels were so high; he was like a creative whirlwind, really. He kept coming and coming and coming at you with more things to do and more ideas.’ The pair shared an informal relationship; this meant they could express themselves freely to one another. Parke once suggested an unplanned shoot among some marshy reeds in Paisley Park’s grounds. The seasonal umber and reddish tones of the area had caught Parke’s eye. As instructed, Prince immersed himself within the reeds in order for the photographer to get the optimum shot. ‘It was very marshy around the area and he was, in fact, wearing heels […] I wondered if he was going to start sinking into the mud.’ This striking still is one of the many unseen images featured within Picturing Prince.
There is a refreshing attitude that resonates through Parke’s portraits. In each image, he manages to capture Prince’s gender fluidity in a way that is unique and surprising. ‘When someone walks in with cat-eye makeup and those lashes, wearing something that has a raw sex appeal to it […] you can’t help but capture it,’ Parke says.
‘I don’t feel like he was ever trying to prove anything to anybody. He just knew who he was and knew what he liked and did what he wanted,’ he adds.
Parke hopes that attendees of his exhibition will leave with a better understanding of who Prince really was. ‘He may have been a musician, but he was also a human being and just getting to see him on a daily basis made me proud,’ he remembers. ‘There’s a lot of genuine insights into him as a person […] I got a lot of shots of him as I saw him on a daily basis, as opposed to Prince as the rock star.’
Parke has a number of exciting projects secured for the upcoming months, one being a structured shoot for publishing company Simon & Schuster that will embody a fashion fairytale theme. Proud Galleries will also continue to display a selection of Parke’s work for the foreseeable future.
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