Prince: 1958 – 2016

Prince : 1958 – 2016
A Revelation

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PREFACE: In the winter of 1997 a book arrived in the mail at my house called  The Sacrifice of Victor. It was a photo book by a photographer called Terry Gydesen, shot entirely in black and white, documenting Prince during his 1992 world tour. It was the ultimate book for me at the time because it converged the thing I loved most (music) with the thing I would eventually become immersed in (fashion) through a medium I had not yet considered as a life pursuit (photography). It was this book — now long out of print and a super rare collectors’ item — that primarily drew me into the world of documentary in a way that no other before it ever had; there was a style and intimacy about Gydesen’s work that made me wish that I was there creating the images. For this reason, this post will primarily feature Gydesen’s images from the book (the top image was shot by Inez & Vinoodh), you can see the lasting impact her work has had over my visual direction.

Over the past several years I’ve been asked both on and off the record if there was anyone at the top of my wishlist whom I’d want to photograph for a portrait. The answer has always, unequivocally been Prince, the only person on that list in fact — which, as of today, becomes a lifelong regret that defies any understandable reason.

I never met the man, and I can’t even claim to be one of his biggest fans (because as is the case with any great artist, the biggest Prince fans are at a whole other level of crazy devotion). But as far as artists go, he has been at the very top of my admiration list for precisely half of my 36-year-old life. I grew up with Michael Jackson and U2 and I love Radiohead and groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Outkast never leave my playlist… but as it has been said about him many times, for me, Prince belongs in his very own tier of which there are no peers…

The internet today and tomorrow will be filled with an endless stream of praises to his mastery both of musicianship and performance, and while these are important things in which Prince is also special to me, he ultimately means something else entirely. So, with your patience, I’d like to take this one opportunity not be objective for once and share something more personal about myself and how I arrived at my present place through his influence.

I was born into a house in which my mother and her roommate had two sets of records: my Mum had been a Jackson Five teenager and entered her 20s still riding for Michael, while her best friend had just discovered Prince. As a 4-year old I set two records side-by-side, Michael Jackson in a white suit posing with a Bengal tiger on Thriller; Prince in black and white wearing just a trench coat and a thong on Dirty Mind. Prince was badass even back then, but Michael… I mean he was sitting with a tiger. I followed my mother and went the Jackson route.

When Purple Rain was released in 1984, my best friend’s mother had the album, the poster, Prince sitting on that purple motorcycle with Appollonia in the back. Maybe it was because the radio played “When Doves Cry” ten times a day… I couldn’t stand Prince. A couple of years later, the first time I had a real crush on a girl, it was “U Got the Look” that played incessantly on the radio. I didn’t hate him as much then.

Prince by Terry Gydesen

Everything preceding this sentence is merely background for my relationship with both the artist and his music. Before becoming a teenager, to me he was just this dude who kinda looked like Little Richard but was younger and had hot women in his music videos and sang “Kiss”. But as I turned 14, I started to learn a lot about myself. I could get on with friends and be loud but I was always quiet. I loved being alone but struggled to reconcile this with the need to have friends, because of what it meant to have friends. As a kid, I always thought I was cool, but I was definitely not cool. And as it became increasingly more difficult for me to find and build real connections with a wide net of people, it started to dawn on me that maybe the problem was I was just strange.

However you want to qualify that.

In 2016 we now understand that through puberty this manifests itself in a few different ways, chief among them being sexuality. I was a victim of this I suppose you could say, either directly through abuse or indirectly through a parallel universe I created for myself that I could just step through any time I wanted to disappear, and though my orientation in of itself didn’t change, the standard hetero-normative ways in which I was expected to act and conduct myself felt mercilessly uncomfortable.

I had big hands, but they looked like girl hands.
I was soft.
I had a name that nobody else had.
I had a name that I was unsure anybody liked.
I had a high-pitched Anglo-California voice that never failed to confuse people—
(and, whenever I ordered pizzas, the operators always called me “ma’am”).

My parents never seemed too bothered, but all of my older relatives asked my Mum questions about me. Some of them never bothered to be confidential about it. This made me feel as if I was pretending to be something I wasn’t, which is actually the most dangerous kind of identity crisis.

With that came eating disorders and depression. At 15, I was nearing six feet at about 135 pounds. Long, clumsy bones.

(Nobody really remembers this now, but back in the early to mid 90s, when Prince changed his name to that unpronounceable symbol, he became publicly unpopular. He went a Madonna/Jackson step too far, was the butt of many late night talk show jokes.)

During the Christmas of 1994 I travelled home to visit my mother. She’d bought herself two presents: a new high fidelity sound system for her living room and Prince’s The Hits/The B-Sides compilation epic that was spread out over 3 CDs. I had nothing to do and nothing else to listen to so I let the albums shuffle in her CD changer. “Raspberry Beret” played first and enamoured me to the point that I probably listened to it 15 more times before going on to the next song. Maybe it was the sound system; I just remember hearing the musicianship on the songs so clearly and in focus. . . . Then came the next hit, and the next, dozens of songs that took me back to the most nostalgic moments of my childhood, realising for the very first time that this was in fact Prince, this weirdo who permed his hair and wore eyeliner and strutted around in high-heels for no other reason than he was fucking PRINCE. But for that very first day, it was the mastery and precision of the musicality of these songs that woke me up. My mother and/or God didn’t bless me with much, but one of them gave me the ability to hear every instrument all of the time, and I’d never been impressed with music in the way that I was impressed with his music.


That winter we drove from Texas to California, stopping in Las Vegas for a few days. I picked up his biography and Around the World in a Day, officially my first album of his. I spent the remainder of the holiday immersed in the story of his life … but was intrigued me most was the dichotomy he seemed to grapple with between the conservative aspects of God and religion, vs. the appetite to love and honour sex. He dressed appropriately to illustrate this, he sucked on lollipops in an era where hip-hop was at its most hyper-masculine — adversaries were still faggots and women were still bitches and hos both respectively and collectively. In Prince I discovered the very first Other I would come to know, long before any of my friends dressed for themselves or came out of their respective closets. As a teenager, I spent much of my time defending Prince’s heterosexuality in spite of his physical ambiguity because honestly, this was exactly what I felt most comfortable as and there were no other contemporary examples to draw from. There was no internet, no social media … if you didn’t know someone like you in those days, you truly believed you were alone. 1993-1995 saw the highest instances of suicides among people under 20 during my lifetime. If Prince hadn’t have come along when he did into my stream of consciousness, I too would’ve been part of that statistic.

Every critical life lesson that has shaped my existence as an adult has been informed by Prince — not the Bible, not a parent or university professor.
It is OK to be different.
It is OK to be extraordinary.
It is OK to have extreme discipline about your work, or craft,
even if at the expense or sacrifice of personal normalcy.

I have been an audiophile my entire life from genes passed down from my mother, but it was Prince that made me go out and hustle for my first guitar at 14. He wrote hundreds of songs, so I wrote hundreds of stories. I wrote and rewrote entire books without a publishing deal or incentive to do so. I learned to perform on stage, I learned to dance because it just wasn’t worth doing unless you could blow people away.

Simbarashe Cha circa 1997
Me--not Prince--on tour in Phoenix, 1997

I did these things for a great many hours, far surpassing the limits of everyone I knew because, well, Prince was like that. Striving for this kind of greatness ultimately got me over both clinical depression and anorexia; not therapy and medication. (I understand this is necessary for many people.) I lost myself, but picked up the work. A lot of what was wrong with my life self-corrected because of the work.

But I also understand that not every life lesson I’ve queued from Prince have been people-friendly. Though I take many photographs for a living, I’m insanely private. I don’t comment about my relationships, ever. I’ve never thrown a party, though for the better part of 10 years, I partied almost every single night; Prince was known for a legendary work ethic and nocturnal habits, so if he could go sleepless without the aid of drugs, I could, too. I don’t name-drop celebrities (and I’ve met them all) unless I’m identifying them in a photo I’ve published. From Prince, I’ve learned to go big in public without ever saying anything while I quietly go about my business. And  though I’ve been fortunate enough to count a great number of people as good friends, less than 10 of them have ever stepped foot inside my apartment whom I wasn’t dating in the past decade. Nowadays, I rarely go outside unless it’s to shoot something with my camera, and if all anyone knew of me is that I worked hard, this was OK. I study the lives of great artists and bide my time in a chair, plotting away from the rest of the world. For the past year, I’ve spent many hours on the subways in New York typing this personal project I call The Oral History of Paisley Park, which is actually just a bunch of juxtaposed quotes and passages I recall reading about my favourite artists from all of the major magazine features from the past twenty years. I remember them all. Writing it down into a single narrative for no reason other than to have it for myself has been the greatest form of personal satisfaction.

Prince by Terry Gydesen

Prince ultimately left us during a run of insanely impromptu concerts he’d been throwing where he performed alone on a stage with just a piano and a microphone. A few friends had the pleasure to see him perform in California. I kept biding some of my time around Ticketmaster waiting for a New York date to be announced, but of course now this will never happen. Prince is gone, and while it’s fact that he will leave behind millions of people who will always love and appreciate the sheer volume of music he’s created (and, maybe even his cheesy-ass films), he quietly leaves me with something else: an identity, a sense of self, and a pursuit of greatness can never fully be defined.

Embrace being different. Embrace being great.

Prince by Inez & Vinoodh
Inez & Vinoodh