An acquaintance at Paisley Park arranged for Baltimore artist Steve Parke to get an assignment/audition for Prince.
Parke had to paint a design on the stage floor for the Lovesexy Tour. Parke had three hours to come up with a concept at Paisley before Prince departed for France.
Parke got the gig. And he kept on painting — staying on as art director and Prince’s personal photographer for 14 years.
Parke did everything from designing stage sets and working on video shoots to photographing album covers and designing souvenir T-shirts. And he continued to live in Baltimore, spending about one week a month in Chanhassen.
This fall, Parke, 53, published “Picturing Prince.” Ostensibly a photo book (some of his pictures are priceless, like Prince in furry bowling boots), the 240-page project also offers rare insights into Prince as a creative entity and human being. With nearly every photo, Parke shares an anecdote about Prince’s music, M.O. or personality — or a conversation they had.
Parke will be in the Twin Cities on Sept. 19 for a Q&A session with ex-Prince keyboardist Morris Hayes at Barnes & Noble in Edina. First, the gregarious Parke answered some questions for the Star Tribune.
On why he got along with Prince, a notoriously demanding control freak
“I did something different. I was not a musician. I was not someone who he could say to: ‘If you can’t do that, I can do that,’ ” Parke said. “I’m a big music fan. I tended to talk to him like a friend. We spent a lot of time together late nights, he’d share music with me and I’d share stuff with him.”
Plus, Parke felt Prince appreciated his honesty.
“I learned not to say no to Prince but I could tell him what steps it would take [to execute an idea] so he could decide if that’s a no or not.”
On the camera loving Prince but Prince not loving the camera
“He had a love/hate relationship with the camera,” Parke explained. “He knew what he had to do. He never really griped about it. Another thing, we were shooting digital and that helped him relax. It was efficient. Hair and makeup took three times longer than the shoot. Digital offered less tension. He could make a decision right there.”
On questioning Prince’s wardrobe choices
“No, no, no, no,” said Parke. “There were a couple that were questionable to me” but the art director never protested.
“He could pull off looks no one else could. He just took risks with everything. With a digital camera, the worst-case scenario is he would just delete the files.”
On shooting candid photos
“It’s relative to what candid means to him,” Parke said. “He always dressed like that.”
For instance, the book captures Prince getting his hair done by a stylist. That wasn’t staged. Or necessarily flattering.
The photographs of Prince in the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum are “more casual,” Parke said. “They’re more reflective of him as an individual vs. him as the persona that people came to know. There are some shoots where he let his guard down.”
On photographing Prince playing basketball
Parke came down to Paisley’s loading dock where Prince was shooting hoops one night about 4 a.m. The photographer wasn’t always sure if his digital cameras were fast enough to capture Prince in concert or on the move.
“I bet you can’t catch me,” Prince said to Parke.
“The [photo] where he was static and the ball was moving between his legs was perfect,” Parke said. “Afterward he goes: ‘You got it.’ ”
On why he did the book
After Prince died last year, Parke posted some photos and stories on Facebook. People responded that it helped them cope with Prince’s death. They encouraged him to put together a book.
Plus, Parke said, Prince had earlier been putting some of Parke’s unpublished images on Instagram.
“I felt good about it,” Parke said.
On why he, not Prince’s estate, owns the photos
“He never wrote up anything between us,” he said. Hence, the photographer owns the photos.
But Parke said that since all the photos were shot with digital cameras, Prince saw the images immediately and deleted anything he didn’t like.
On the most misunderstood thing about Prince
His work ethic, Parke said.
“One time he said: ‘People say I play music. I’m working.’
“I don’t think people can imagine how hard he worked. Even when he was doing rehearsals, he was in there 120 percent performing.”
On the Purple One’s nose
One day in the middle of a photo shoot, Prince asked Parke: “Why do people think I had a nose job?”
Parke explained that in his early photographs, Prince’s eyes were mostly level with the camera lens. More recent images were taken with a lower angle. So Prince asked Parke to take some photos like the old ones. And sure enough, Parke reports, the Purple One’s nose looked like his “old nose.”
On why he left Prince
After Parke’s son was born, he was no longer willing to be on call. When he declined to meet a last-minute change in Prince’s schedule, the impetuous boss took him off salary and put him on retainer.
One day Prince said to Parke: “You must miss your kid.” Indeed. That’s why he quit and now works with various clients, including HBO, DC/Vertigo Comics and Sheila E.
Said Parke: “When you’re working for Prince, you’re all in.”