Monday 19 February 2018

A Prince in his palace

Photographer Steve Parke had unrivalled access to Prince for 13 years as his art director. His new book of intimate snaps, many taken at the star's Paisley Park home, offers a unique glimpse into the life of one of the most enigmatic musicians of his generation

Prince striking a pose on the playground he built for his son, Gregory, who died when he was just a week old.
Prince striking a pose on the playground he built for his son, Gregory, who died when he was just a week old.
Picturing Prince - An Intimate Portrait by Steve Parke, published by Cassell Illustrated, £20 www.octopusbooks.co.uk All images © Steve Parke
Picturing Prince
John Meagher

John Meagher

On the face of it, they are just a pair of photographs of Prince hanging out at a child's playground. He's looking sombre in both, but the casual observer would think little more of it before turning to some of the more risqué shots in this new book of photos captured by the late musician's former art director, Steve Parke.

But then the realisation dawns that this was the playground Prince had built at his Minnesota studio-cum-mansion, Paisley Park, for his son Gregory, who was born in 1996 but died after just one week owing to complications brought on by severe disability.

Few knew at the time the sort of pain Prince went through or how devastated he and his then wife, Mayte, were a few years later when she suffered a miscarriage, but that information started to emerge last April when the singer died, suddenly, aged just 57.

Baltimore-native Parke knew Prince better than most, having worked for him for 13 years between 1988 and 2001, and his book of words and pictures offers an insight into the man, the musician and the legend.

Picturing Prince - An Intimate Portrait by Steve Parke, published by Cassell Illustrated, £20 www.octopusbooks.co.uk All images © Steve Parke
Picturing Prince - An Intimate Portrait by Steve Parke, published by Cassell Illustrated, £20 www.octopusbooks.co.uk All images © Steve Parke

Those shots at the playground give a very human insight to an enigmatic and, to some, inscrutable figure. "At one point," Parke writes, "he nodded to the playground and told me how he'd built it thinking about his employees' and friends' children all coming there and playing together. It was sort of a sad moment, the two of us standing there alone... I could tell that he went somewhere else and then he pulled himself out by changing the subject. But, understandably, his mood was more sombre as we finished the shoot."

Parke first started to work with Prince at the apex of his fame and creativity. It was 1988 and the diminutive singer was already an industry veteran, having delivered nine albums in an astonishing 10-year run, including the previous year's magnum opus, Sign o' the Times.

Now, the ever-restless Prince Rogers Nelson was about to release another album, Lovesexy, and Parke was asked to work on part of the stage design. Although he didn't say it in so many words, Prince clearly liked that initial work and the two became close.

Few people got the sort of access to Prince's world that Parke enjoyed. For every month of the year, he would spend one week at Paisley Park, photographing his boss (who, Parke is keen to point, was as flamboyantly dressed away from the spotlight as he was in the centre of it), collaborating on the visual aspects of album and tour design and being something of a sounding board to Prince when he was working on new material.

Parke soon came to learn that there were "three Princes", as he put it.

"One day Prince was your best friend and a guy you could speak your mind to," he writes, "another day he was your boss and all that comes with that, and yet another day he was simply the public persona of Prince with the trappings that came with the current incarnation, good or bad. Some days it was all three."

On occasion, Parke travelled with the star and saw how he was outside his Paisley Park cocoon. "The guy I knew seemed a natural introvert when he wasn't playing music, but for public appearances he'd need to pull it out and turn it up to 11. And he'd become this extroverted, social, super-charming version of himself...

"It occurred to me that Paisley Park, his studios, and the small town of Chanhassen were fairly insulated - especially when I first arrived at the big white building that seemed to grow out of cornfields. Prince spent countless hours in that building, surrounded by a relatively small group of people. Heading out into a world of people you don't know but have to deal with for months on end must have been not only daunting but also a bit overwhelming. I saw the difference between the guy I chatted with and who would ask about my kid, and the guy who took over and commanded any stage he stepped on anywhere in the world. It was a dramatic shift."

Parke stopped working for Prince in 2001, and although they parted on good terms, he never got to meet him again. Work schedules, he writes, never allowed it and he feels great regret. "I was, in many ways, as close to him as I've ever been to anyone."

Picturing Prince - An Intimate Portrait by Steve Parke, published by Cassell Illustrated, £20. www.octopus books.co.uk All images © Steve Parke

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