Dig if you will the picture of a young Prince strolling the streets of Minneapolis. Posing in front of the city’s Ninth Symphony mural – full afro, seventies denim outfit and a glint in his eye. These early images of the young man who would become an icon, were shot by photographer Robert Whitman back in 1977. Back then the 19-year-old musician’s management team were pitching for his first record deal.
Hinting little towards the daring ensembles and sexuality that became synonymous with Prince Rogers Nelson, they show a relaxed, carefree side to an artist later known for his exacting style and vision. Documenting three early photoshoots, Prince Pre-fame is a new book sharing never been seen images of Prince, shot by Robert Whitman. Ahead of its release this week, we caught up with Robert to talk about fond memories of shooting a future legend.
Hi Robert, how did you end up connecting with Prince back in 1977?
It was thanks to my 2 old schoolmates who discovered Prince. They became his mangers and were able to sign him to the Warner Bros shortly later our first photoshoot. They asked me to take photos of him for the press kit and I was a young photographer starting my carrier and taking photos of a lot of bands during those crazy times in Minneapolis.
Could you tell that he had something special about him back then? What did you think of his music - were there any songs that stood out to you?
The first time I heard Prince voice was in “ Soft and Wet”. I was in the car with Gary Levinson, his business manager. After the first minute I looked at my friend and said “ This is more than special”. It was just different and I did not know who he was.
"We were two guys from Minneapolis, no stylist involved. I just wanted to capture him as he was."
How involved was he in the shoots? Did he do his own styling and did he have thoughts on the images?
We were two guys from Minneapolis, no stylist involved. I just wanted to capture him as he was, playing and creating. Prince brought some accessories and we used them all together with my improbable props. We were not prepared and he did not have a specific idea of his look yet.
Was it difficult to develop a rapport with him, as he was known to be so shy?
He was shy, quite and reserved. However I was and I am the exact opposite and I believe for this reason his managers wanted me to take photos of him. I made him laugh a lot and we got along very well. You will feel this in the book.
"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!"
These images of him have become iconic - perhaps because it’s so rare to see him so relaxed & candid. What were your best memories from the days of shooting together?
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 very improbable props and I was finally able to use my star filter on my lenses. They came out to be my favorite photos along with the smiley ones.
His style evolved quite considerably to become much more polished, and he also hired personal photographers - did he seem to have a clear vision for where he would go?
He did not have a clear vision of his look yet at that time but he was able to put his image together, to follow his instincts and to come up with ideas during our shoots. I think was just the beginning of the transformation.
"We both had dreams and Minneapolis was the best city in that moment to make those dreams come true, besides NYC."
Was it important for you to shoot him in Minneapolis? What was the energy of the city’s music scene like back then?
Minneapolis was in a very particular and prosperous moment for the music scene. We were both from Minneapolis, I was shooting different bands during that time and starting my career and Prince was exactly at the same stage. We both had dreams and Minneapolis was the best city in that moment to make those dreams come true, besides NYC.
In his later years, Prince returned to his early look - with natural hair and 1970s clothing and also performing with the piano - do you think this was him coming full circle in his career?
Definitely yes, everybody says this and I am happy he went back where everything started even if gives me a bitter feelings as shortly after he passed away.
I also see a lot of photos and posts on my socials where people like to compare the two images of him back in 1977 with the latest ones. A full circle!
"The first time I heard Prince, I looked at my friend and said “ This is more than special"
Prince was an artist who didn’t look back a lot in his career. Is your outlook on photography similar?
Prince’s photos were in a box for so many years and I knew that I would go back to look at them at certain point. When I did I discover something new and old about my photography.
I like to see how my prospective has changed, I like to see how raw these images together with others can be and still love them for being so real and unexpected. It is like reading at a diary, can be painful! I understand why he did not like to look back.
Which is your favourite photograph you shot with him?
I have a lot of photos that become my favourite during the last couple of years but I would say that my best photos for which I really wanted to do this book and share these images are those where he is smiling. He was not smiling so much during the years to come. At least not on camera!
"Every person is able to get an own memory of Prince just because he gave so much."
How do you think he should be remembered and honored as an artist?
He was able to transform himself so much that every time he did he gave different vibes. Every person is able to get an own memory of Prince just because he gave so much that would be difficult to identify him with one thing.
Do you have a favourite Prince lyric?
I would say the first song I heard of him in the car stereo back in Minneapolis 1977. It was a cassette at that time, we were in a parking lot and he starts:
“Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane
That I want to lose in you
Baby can you stand the pain
Hey, lover, sugar don’t you see?
There’s so many things that you do to me Oh Baby!!!”
It was totally Minneapolis!
Prince Pre Fame is available for £100 (Limited edition) or £550 (Strictly limited edition) through the Vero App.