Prince's First Photo Shoot: 'My Gut Said He Was Going to be Huge,' Photographer Robert Whitman Recalls
In 1977, Prince Rogers Nelson was a 19-year-old musician in the midst of recording his first album while looking to sign with a major label. An equally fledgling creative, 26-year-old photographer Robert Whitman was approached by friend Owen Husney, Prince's first manager, to shoot the artist for a "brochure" to send to record companies.
Whitman recalled to Billboard the series of shoots that ended up becoming some of his most recognized work, despite admitting, "I didn't know what the hell I was doing."
How were you introduced to Prince?
Owen [Husney] came over and said, 'You've got to listen to this.' He had heard this tape, I think it was "Soft and Wet." So we went in the car and drove around, listening to it, and it was just amazing. Owen was managing him and he had a couple of partners, including Gary Levenson. They said, 'We want to make a little brochure on him, to get him a record deal. Would you be willing to shoot him?' I said, 'Sure. I don't know what I'm doing, but I would be happy to.'
How did you conceive the shoot?
It ended up being three different shoots. I had a very small studio in the Kemps Ice Cream building [in Minneapolis]. I had one piece of seamless and a portable flash. We did the first shoot there. And then we did another session in downtown Minneapolis, out of which came one of the most iconic images, of him against a white
wall with music notes. The building belonged to the Schmitt Music Company. And then we did another shoot at Owen's home. We shot him with Owen's dog, sitting at a table, playing the piano.
What was he like on set?
He was very, very shy. But he opened up to me and he was willing to play around, willing to try different outfits. I didn't know what I was doing, so I experimented. I put light behind his hair so his Afro was like a halo. We put sequins on him and then I put a scarf on the lens, but it didn't work. We took his shirt off. We had him blowing bubbles. This is all old analogue stuff. But he really opened up and we had some silly moments. He was young and was just starting and so was I.
Did you have a feeling at the time that he would become a star? And did you think he would become a style icon?
I wasn't in the music business, but I thought he was amazing. My gut said that he was going to be huge. And my friends in the music business said 'This guy is going to be huge.' And they were totally right.
I don't know much about style, but the people he was around were such style icons in Minneapolis. He was quite an influence there, with his crowd. Everybody was very, very cool.
What do you think of the photos, looking back on them?
They're so bad they're good. There are really some bad shots in there. I have about 17 to 19 rolls of film from that week, but there are only 20 or 21 photos that I've been showing (at exhibitions). There was some really horrible cropping. But there are some great expressions. I think I have some of the only photos of him where he has a smile on his face.
Did you ever see Prince again?
I had one moment with him many years later, maybe in the early eighties. I was in LaGuardia Airport, on the phone, and all of a sudden Prince walked by and said, 'Whitman, how are you?' I said, 'Fine, great,' and he walked off. And within a second all these kids were asking me if I could get them his autograph. I never saw him again.
As a Minneapolis native, what legacy do you think Prince leaves for the city?
I think he really put Minneapolis on the map not only for music but culture. The city is now known for being a cultural, artistic, hip town, and it all has to do with Prince's influence.