Nov/Dec 2008 Cover Story
The Evolution of Prince
A photographic exploration of the elusive musician as seen through the lens of Randee St. Nicholas
by Christina M. Hinke
Legendary portrait photographers are regarded for their unwavering ability to capture the characteristics that are at the very root of the soul of the subjects they document in each single still photographic image. Though photographs are technically two dimensional, a skilled portraitist can make that flat piece of paper jump off a wall or a page. So when Randee St. Nicholas writes about Prince in her introduction to the book, 21 Nights, on which she collaborated with Prince, “To know him is to know that you probably will never know him…” is a statement that blurs the traditional notion to know your subject so well that you capture their true essence. Portraitists have gone to great lengths to achieve this. For example, famed photographer Mary Ellen Mark lived with a homeless family so they would open their hearts and souls on film.
Randee St. Nicholas in her own way took that old-school approach with this project that documents Prince while on location in London for a 21-night sold-out show. She slept when he slept, sometimes that was 10 a.m. She was poised with camera in hand at the ready when he would walk out of an elevator, or enter his hotel room door. On nights when he did not return to the hotel, she would finally call it a night.
Months before, when Prince called her up one day, unexpectedly, and said “I want to do a book together. Come up with an idea,” she suggested, “You’re going to be in London for a period of time playing 21 nights in one place, I think we should do it about this time in your life, instead of doing a retrospective of the photographs we’ve done over the years.”
While in the back of her mind she thought, “I know I have him as a captive guy. He’s eventually going to show up to get his picture taken because he was going to perform, he was going to be in one city, and he can’t leave that city. I’m going to get enough pictures of him for a book. This is great.”
“It was two-fold. And it worked,” she says.
After that phone conversation, St. Nicholas sent a presentation of her ideas to him in London, where he was preparing for the concert, and he immediately replied, “When can you come?”
A response St. Nicholas has grown accustomed to after working with him on photography and music video shoots for about two decades. “All these years I have been working with him it is sort of you just show up. He feels like shooting, you show up figure out what you are going to do. It has always worked,” she reveals.
For this assignment, she gained access inside Prince’s hotel room at the Dorchester in London, not an easy task for someone known to value his privacy. She set up lights (she used a combination of ambient light and long-time exposures) and equipment, permanently fixed in the room for the duration of their time there. And she was not alone, she had assistants handing her cameras (all of the photos were shot using film, with the exception of the concert photos). This allowed her to photograph Prince at any given moment. She also placed equipment by the elevators, backstage at the O2 Center, took her cameras to the streets of London in the middle of the night and rehearsals in the afternoon.
Despite those facts, St. Nicholas was not shadowing Prince. “A couple times he would call me in my room and say ‘I don’t feel like shooting tonight, Is that OK?’ And I’d go ‘yeah,’” she says. “I was ready at all times and when he appeared I shot him and when he didn’t appear I shot other things, like other band members, the locations, which were amazing, just to document the feel and ambience of the world that he was in at that period of time.”
When St. Nicholas did have Prince to herself, she would photograph him. For instance, during the tour, someone was shooting a music video of his and she went to that room while he waiting for the videographer to begin, and lit it to her liking. Then, she said to him, “I am going to shoot you now.”
“A lot of it was because of my relationship with him…it’s not like I was a fly on the wall because I had lights everywhere. But in a sense that we have a camaraderie already that is a bit unspoken…,” St. Nicholas explains. “There are pictures of him coming up and down the stairs where I did several portraits of him. So it’s a combination [of candid and directed]. It was definitely thought out by me first. I would have no idea where he would show up. But there was a plan. I knew there was a storyline to this book.”
U Got the Look
What is interesting and surprising is to look at the photographs (only about 20 images were shown to Picture because there were no books available at the time) and to think, “Oh these are Photoshopped and it’s completely staged,” an editorial in book form – yet the compilation is not. St. Nicholas says, “There is very little retouching on him. At 50 he looks the same as when he was 18 or 19.”
It is possible that part of that agelessness façade is because Prince does wear makeup that St. Nicholas says he applies himself and she has never seen him without.
After making music for over 30 years, this is the first book of pictures Prince has authorized, also the first book St. Nicholas agreed to do. So, here is a world-famous musician that his fans, up to this point, only know through his music and lyrics, his videos and concerts and the few photographs seen of him in magazines and some may wonder if he is always dressed in show form.
St. Nicholas, who has worked with Prince for over 15 years, matter-of-factly states, “He is always dressed as Prince, with his own style. … That’s him. That’s how he dresses, that’s who he is 24 hours a day. You don’t see him in jeans and a T-shirt and then when he goes on stage he is dressed as Prince, no, he is Prince through and through 24/7.”
“His candidness is more glamorous than the most glamorous people, even in his solitude,” asserts St. Nicholas
The mystique of power, of sexual prowess, of musical genius, of otherworldly knowledge that Prince emits is an enigma, and this aura, according to St. Nicholas, is the essential piece weaved in this book in the polar perspectives of fashion and spirit.
Outwardly, this volume shows off Prince’s unique sense of style, his clothes, shoes, hair, jewelry, and the female accessories that drip from his wrists. There is even a fashion section in the book that St. Nicholas chose to shoot like a story for Italian Vogue. “Had you been a Prince fan and said I can’t believe he is wearing pants with the backside cut out so you see his bottom, to where he is wearing a hot pink shirt, shoes and pants that all match. Whether you ever understood his style or would take on his style for yourself, he has always been a style icon. His fashion has been a very big statement along with his music. That’s why I wanted to do a Prince book with a fashion twist,” she explains. “His fashion is iconic and it’s kind of timeless. It’s evolved as well. But it’s still his fashion, so it doesn’t matter what he is in, it’s still Prince’s fashion whatever it is.”
St. Nicholas purposefully shot the book with an “editorial twist,” she says, because “I am not a candid photographer even my live pictures don’t look candid. They don’t look like other live photographers’ work. They look like portraits set up, but actually they were live photographs. This book is a glimpse into Prince’s world, and it’s very different than what they [fans] would expect it to be.”
I Wonder U
This is not to say this book of photographs is superficial. St. Nicholas also delved into Prince’s inner self. Throughout the task of photographing one of music’s most mysterious men, she had found one element of Prince that is universally him, his introspection, something St. Nicholas says the public has not seen before. “What I hope they see in these photographs is that he is thought provoking and he has a lot of depth. That’s what makes him mysterious. Its not that he doesn’t talk to people and that’s what keeps the mystery.”
On occasion, it can be quite the opposite. He will have intimate dinner parties for his friends and perform for them with his band, the New Power Generation, in his L.A. home’s basement decked out like a club. He’s had intimate concerts at his Minneapolis studio, Paisley Park. He goes to local clubs after his shows to jam for a few hours. St. Nicholas says he is a very funny man, who cracks jokes. “He is a very social guy,” says St. Nicholas. “At this particular time of his life that I document in these photographs he is very solitary. He has taken a different direction on his spiritual path.”
“I have been paid a lot of money to observe people… I see, and what I see in him is an incredible evolution and I think he and his spirituality are right there evolving with everything else about him,” she says.
One image documenting his faith is a close up of a well-used black leather-bound Bible, from his newfound religion of Jehovah’s Witness, with his full name Prince R. Nelson inscribed in gold on the right bottom corner with a hand reaching for it out of the left side of the frame.
In another image, he sits at his keyboard, his head down on the ivories and ebonies, eyes closed, fingers worn down by guitar strings, an image that stops the viewer to wonder what his thoughts are, is he drumming up his next song? Is he praying? Is he exhausted from rehearsing, playing three-hour sets, and then playing after hours? …
These are the treasures that fans will adore, and photography enthusiasts crave. These are the pictures that question the mind to explore its own story behind the person at that moment in time.
In the photograph where St. Nicholas shot him prior to the video being filmed, Prince is seen lying across a bed covered in cream-colored satin sheets, he is looking beyond the walls of the room. “That is a very thought provoking picture for me, as someone who knows him, when I look at it, because it tells me a lot about him. There is a certain solitude to that photograph,” St. Nicholas says. “When I look at that picture it makes me think, ‘Wow, I wonder what is going on inside of him right now, not just in his head but his heart.’”
Which circles back to her writing, one night in her hotel room after Prince did not show up for her to photograph, about how she may not fully know this friend and colleague as well as he knows himself, but has photographed him at a time in his life that depicts Prince not just as the Purple Majesty, but as the man he is, the man he allows those closest to him to see. That is what legends are made of - the talented ones who stand in the shadows. For 21 nights he stepped out from the shade for St. Nicholas to record on film candidly and vividly only the way Prince could subsist.
“This is photography and his poetry and a bit of a storyline that evolved while we were there. I hope that for all the people who are fans or admire him, but don’t know him, that they will be able to get a feel of what that time in his life was like and they experience something,” St. Nicholas says. “It was an amazing experience for us. It was very light and dark both. I think you feel that in the book.”