Probably all of you remember that, some months ago, there was an exhibition of stunning Prince pictures at the very beginning of his career (1977), taken by the photographer Robert Whitman. It was extensively discussed and there was a high interest, given these pictures were unseen at that time, and besides, they showed an unknown side of Prince, quite different from the one we are used to see.
The interest on such pictures induced a lovely quaker (who prefers to remain unmentioned) to contact Robert Whitman for an interview, trying to get some background information on the photography sessions that yielded the pictures showed at this exhibition.
Herafter you have the result of this interview; we thank a lot Robert Whitman for agreeing to do this interview, and also to the nice anonymous quaker for all the effort (I know it was a hard job) required to make this happen. We really appreciate your work for this!
I’d like also to thank Stigma Style, who discovered this wonderful exhibition back in January 2007.
Ok, that’s it. We hope you will enjoy reading this interview!
How did you become interested in photography?
I became interested in photography after seeing a movie back in the mid 70s called Blow-Up. I was a …I had graduated from university in theater, and when I was…then I went into international relations, because I traveled around the world when I was young, and I gave up theater and decided I wanted to live out of the country, and that was during Vietnam … I decided I wanted to live out of the country, and didn’t want to be associated with things… and didn’t want to be kidnapped or killed, and I was a hippie…
There were only 3 things I never wanted to do:
– I didn’t want to work a 9-5 job
– I never wanted to wear a coat and a tie
– And at that point I had long hair and a beard, and didn’t want a hair-cut for a job.
And I saw this movie about a hip photographer, and I thought, “god wouldn’t it be great to be a photographer, you know… with models running around…”
How did this photo shoot with Prince come about? What were the photos going to be used for? Were any of the photos used by Prince?
Basically, friends of mine, Owen Husney and Gary Levinson, were his managers at the time, and Minneapolis even in those days was big in music … I heard his first tape, and they thought, “this guy is going to be big”…We were all very young at the time…they asked if I would do a shoot for him for a little brochure or something to get sent to the different record companies
I went to see Prince in the studio, and they (my friends/Prince’s managers) knew I was a starting out photographer, and they asked if I would be interested in doing these shots for a brochure they were sending out. They put together a nice brochure, but I don’t know whatever happened to it, I don’t remember even seeing it
At the time the photographs were taken, did you have the feeling that Prince was going to go on to become a superstar? What were your impressions of him?
I thought he was so extremely talented, really amazing, but you know I was a photographer… I didn’t know that much about the [music] industry…but I’d never seen anybody so excited (Note: He means his friends in the music industry (Owen & Gary) were really excited about Prince.)… My friends were in the music industry, so I assumed…but they also had people who just came and went, you never know [who’s going to “make it big”]. Going to see him play, he was very pleasant but aloof. He was a young kid at the time. I think he was 17, and I think I was like 30. I started taking photographs when I was three…no, really I was 25, 26—probably 27 or 28.
Did you and Prince ever cross paths after you both made it big?
First of all, many of my friends were in his original group, it was called The Revolution or something. I saw him once in LaGuardia airport when I was in New York, and I was on the phone and he walked by me and said, “Hey Whitman, how are you?” and within two minutes the whole LaGuardia airport was surrounding me and going, “Was that Prince?” But by then he was gone. That was probably 15 years ago.
Are you in touch?
Do you own any Prince albums? (That last question is a lighthearted one.)
Yeah, but I don’t really listen to any cds anymore, I listen to satellite radio.
Which photo(s) is your favorite and why?
Oh, I love the one in front of the wall at the music store, it’s called the Schmidt music company in Minneapolis, and I really love that picture because it’s really from that time and he really looks interesting and there are old cars in the background and a woman standing in the background.
Also some of the headshots I did with the backlighting…and some where he’s just having fun on the street…and I think there’s one where he’s giving the picture the finger.
Looking back on these pictures, my style is still very similar…very real, trying to capture a moment. Being a young photographer, I was still trying to develop my style in those days.
Some of the proof sheets that were also on display at the gallery have certain shots circled in red—were those your choices or Prince’s?
Those were my choices.
Were there any of the shots that Prince particularly liked (or disliked)?
You know to be honest with you I can’t remember, I’m sure they [Prince’s managers] showed him the photos from the shoot and the ones they were going to put in the brochure, and I assumed that he liked them. I shot him 3 or 4 different times, and each time I showed him the photos and it seemed like he was pretty pleased.
Who came up with the concept for the shoot?
It was the manager, and myself, probably. We had discussed ideas…like one of the shots was at the manager’s house, and some were on the street…and we shot at the music store and my studio. You know, I had a little hole in the wall studio in those days.
Do you recall at whose house the photo of Prince at the piano and at the table with a guitar was taken?
That was Owen’s house.
Was there a stylist?
I think he figured out what he wanted to wear and brought his clothes, and there were the managers…
A technical question: what type of camera, equipment, film, etc. did you use for these photos?
I’m sure it was a Nikon 35 mm camera, and it was Tri-Ex black and white film, which I still use today.
How long was the shoot (days, weeks)?
We shot about 3—4 different times.
What year was it?
Circa ‘78 – I’m not exactly sure, it was ‘77, ‘78 – right around that time.
How much film was shot?
A lot. Altogether I have 17 rolls of film, over a period of 3-4 photo shoots. Thirty-six exposure rolls.
The bio on your website states that you were Prince’s “first principal photographer.” Did you do any other photoshoots with Prince that we might be familiar with?
No. That’s all I did of him.
Even in these early photographs we see the genesis of the later style you are known for—this ability to “capture elusive moments whether in a studio or on the street.” Were these moments easy to capture with Prince? I’m particularly thinking of the photo where he is walking down the street flipping off the camera. Was he having fun?
He was very willing to do what we tried to do.
How did this show at the Black and White Gallery come about?
I have this picture of him in front of the wall, and I know the gallery owner, and I really love this photograph of Prince, and it was her birthday, and I had this nice little black and white print, so I thought I would blow it up and give it to her, and she really went crazy for it, and wanted to do a show, so she came and looked at the proof sheets.
These photos are roughly 30 years old, what made you decide to show them now as opposed a year like 1984 (when Purple Rain came out)?
To be honest with you, she’s the one who thought about it; I never even considering displaying them or anything, I mean I like the pictures, but I hadn’t thought about it.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on several different projects. I basically like traveling the world, and figuring out what inspires me. I’m working on 5-6 different projects that could lead to a book or a gallery show.
I have photographs from:
– Swimming pool in Cuba
Monday I’m leaving for Moscow. I’m going to do a shoot of some famous restaurants and Russian baths (for Departures magazine – part of Amex publishing).
Any additional comments you’d like to add?
Not really. These had just been sitting in the drawer for all these years, and it was really nice to see how I started, and how he started, and having them displayed in the gallery.
I think the proof sheets were great – I think it would have been really interesting to have had them blown up really big.”