It’s hard to imagine the last half a century without the whirlwind that was the late, great Prince. Musician, artist, global sex symbol, but in 1977, when photographer Robert Whitman met him, Prince Rogers Nelson was almost unknown.
In Whitman’s limited edition publication PRINCE: PRE FAME, the singer’s fans are treated to a rare insight into one of the most enigmatic figures of the 20th century. Over 200 pages, the singer is laid bare on an intimately casual level. Laughing, smiling, posing on the streets of the city he grew up in, the publication reveals Prince as we’ve rarely seen the Prince behind the showman persona.
Here, we speak to Whitman about the time he shared with a 20-year old Prince, the experience of his passing in 2016, and what it is like to have these intimate, captivating photos be shared with the public now.
“He became a star and was able to create an image that people still now are remembering and trying to understand at the same time.”
Susie Joseph: Did you rediscover the photos after the late star’s passing or were you always planning on showing them to the world someday?
Robert Whitman: Just a few people over the years saw some of the photos like the iconic Music Wall or Prince at the piano. Nobody looked at the entire collection and they were in the box stored in my archive for such a long time. It was known that I had photos of him because his manager, Owen Husney mentioned us in some interviews about those days in Minneapolis. People started asking about these photos and the story behind them just before he passed away and when that happened it was crazy. All magazines wanted my photos and I was not prepared, they were just negatives and the process to scan or develop a negative could not go as fast as the media request. Until then it was just a fine art small collection shared with limited people that loved Prince but after the first publications in People and New York Magazine this collection became a beautiful memory to share with his fans all over the world. I am happy they could see them now all together for the first time in this book.
Susie: It’s a beautiful collection that will surely mean a lot to the late star’s fans.
Robert: For long time as I said, it was just a beautiful memory closed in a box. I did not really think about it for almost 35 years. My life as an advertising photographer was quite fast and I travelled a lot all over the world. I did not want to keep this away from the people who loved Prince I just thought that these photos were very raw. All the photos of Prince were always so polished and mine are not.
Susie: It must have been quite something to watch someone you know embark on an astronomical rise like Prince’s. Did you have any inkling of what was to come?
Robert: Prince was difficult to know intimately but we did collaborate together in a very nice way. He was different from other people I photographed, somehow all of us involved with Prince at that stage knew that he was something exceptional. It was just a question of time and that time came pretty fast. He became a star and was able to create an image that people still now are remembering and trying to understand at the same time.
Susie: What was the thing that stuck with you the most in your memories of the singer at this time?
Robert: We were shooting in my studio in Minneapolis and from nowhere he decides to take off his shirt. From there we start experimenting with sticky rhinestones and I was finally able to use my star filter on my lenses. They came out to be some of my favourite shots.
Susie: The shots taken out on the streets are particularly striking. Was this New York or Minneapolis? He looks so comfortable.
Robert: That was Downtown Minneapolis, the MiniApple as it was called back in those days. We were having fun, he was timid and became almost annoyed but happy and relaxed in those streets and it was great. He was moving all over and you could not predict what was next. There is a sequence in the book that shows exactly those moments, I kept it in the same order I shot it 40 years ago.
Susie: How long was the duration of the shoot? Did it all occur over a few days, or was it something that you revisited over a period of time?
Robert: The photoshoot was around three or four days. We met and went around in my van. The studio shoot was in my small studio in Minneapolis at the Kemps Ice Cream building and then we did a section at his manager’s house. We did not have so much resources back then, no creative directors or stylist involved just us and we made the best of what we had! We were young and we did not need much really, his music and talent did the rest.