Cover Interview ☞ Jeff Katz
ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE
ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE
SIGN O' THE TIMES
Interview with photographer Jeff Katz:
"I was the lens that captured the image that Prince
wanted to convey to the world"
by Sassan Niasseri 08.09.2020
Between 1985 and 1996, Jeff Katz was a genius' house photographer.
A conversation about Prince in the South of France,
Prince in the Wild West and Prince as a roller-skating Batman.
The most famous pictures we know of Prince are from him: Jeff Katz.
The American photographer shot the superstar between 1985 and 1996.
This included album covers such as “Sign O’ The Times” and“ Parade ”, concert photographs as well as intimate close-ups that show Prince as a person like he had never been seen before.
Mr. Katz, which photoshoot with Prince was your favorite?
The special trait about Prince was his unpredictability. Literally every year he presented a new concept, a new look, a new hairstyle, new colors, new costumes. When I visited him in Minneapolis, I never knew what he would look like. The almost paradoxical feeling arose of photographing the same artist every time, but then again a brand new artist. My favorite shoot was maybe my first with him: when I visited him in 1985 in the south of France, in Nice, where he was filming “Under The Cherry Moon” and I shot him for the soundtrack album “Parade”. The picture that became the cover was created during my first one-on-one session with him. It was also the beginning of my career. I didn't know then that this picture would become the album cover. But it was always like that, there was never an announcement, “Let's do the album cover!”.
I would be surprised every time which design Prince would choose.
How did you get the job?
The "Parade" session took place in September 1985. I started my career in 1982 and was soon shooting for Warner Brothers Records and the large Los Angeles venues such as the Hollywood Bowl. Prince’s record company Paisley Park released the band's debut album “The Family” in the spring. Prince wanted to be involved in the photo design for this project - Warners asked me to help him shoot the pictures for the album. Prince seemed to like that. Shortly afterwards the call came asking me to fly to France. He wanted me to be his personal photographer.
Mind you, this request came at a time when I had not yet taken
a single picture of him.
Was it a challenge to shoot the “Sign O’ The Times” cover, which, unlike “Parade”, showed not just one person, but a person with additional hidden object elements?
No, not at all. But it should not be forgotten that Photoshop didn't exist back then. Everything had to be set up and adjusted. We couldn't change or recompose anything digitally. Every element is real. Most of the time we would go from Prince's house to his recording studio. That shoot took place in the Dinner Theater in Chanhassen, an event hall. [Correction - this session took place at Prince‘s warehouse in Eden Prairie] The “Parade” cover was striking with its strong black and white contrasts. It looked a little like Old Hollywood. “Sign O’ The Times ”was psychedelic. It reflected the variety of styles and dynamics of the music.
At some point, Prince stood in front of my camera and I pulled the trigger.
The cover was done.
Did he say why he only wanted to show half of his face on the cover and it was only blurred?
We never had those conversations. There was usually no advance information about the productions. As with shooting the “Sign O’ The Times” tour book, Prince didn't say which images he would use what for. But I never thought about that, either. That didn't mean I didn't make suggestions on what to use, I did as to which shots I liked. As soon as I would arrive, the non-stop shooting would begin either with him alone or with his band.
With the “Sign O’ The Times” single cover, some fans thought Prince was depicted on it - although the person who covers their face with a heart is clearly female. How do you remember that session?
After “Parade” and the tour, there was a break. The world premiere of "Under The Cherrymoon" was interesting: the American city for the film premiere was actually chosen by a drawing of different names. [Whatever city won] Prince and his film crew would stop by. The name that won was a small town in the Midwest, Sheridan. The wild, wild west! A cowboy town in Wyoming.
This also proved that this drawing was real. The town couldn't have been more secluded. At that time, I was photographing many musicians and actors. At the end of the year, Prince called and asked: Can you come back, the next session is coming up! In January 1987 his Paisley Park complex was still under construction, we took those photos in his warehouse nearby, where rehearsals for the “Sign O’ The Times” tour also took place. The room where the single was recorded was empty, I took the pictures of Cat in the mirror with Prince there.
Had their relationship changed over the years?
Prince trusted me. I understood what he wanted quickly. He didn't like being asked too many questions. You had to try to read his mind. It's not that he didn‘t speak. But it was important to anticipate how he wanted to be photographed. Regardless, he was open-minded and experimental. It was only when digital photography became available that it became possible to examine images immediately. Of course, that couldn't be done with film.
It was a magical process to look at the photos together.
Over the years I saw myself as part of his concept. And most of the time it was just the two of us shooting. No executives or staff making suggestions.
The "Lovesexy" album cover, in turn, came from Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
Yes, but my pictures ended up in the tour book. I used pop art colors, a mix of different styles. The “Lovesexy” concept of freedom of movement is reflected in this book. It also contained the first pictures of Paisley Park - I photographed Prince and the band in front of the stark, angular building.
I hadn't photographed Prince outside in a long time. The last time was probably in the south of France for “Under The Cherry Moon”.
“Sign O’ The Times” only contained studio photography.
The tour book also has those pictures that show him - perhaps the last time - doing crossdressing, with a feminine touch.
The photos in which he is wearing a police hat, yes. But you probably know, photographs from that session also show him without make-up and with a five-day beard. Those were the first pictures we took.
Then there was a break, and after a few hours, Prince returned: shaved.
And was in the new look with the police hat.
I wasn't prepared for that. But that was exactly what made it interesting: don't ask questions, "Hey, how did you come up with that?" Just start shooting.
How did you and Prince set the mood?
There was music on the set. Often his own. The album he was working on.
But definitely also songs of other artists.
Was he interested in the technical aspects of photography?
Never asked "how" or "why". He didn't just wear a look for the camera - that was his lifestyle. What might be a stage costume for us, they were his everyday clothes. This had an advantage for me as I could familiarize myself with his newest style.
My secret favorite photo is from 1989: Prince in the "Batman"
look and on roller skates.
Yes, the "Batman" phase. The picture was taken on the tennis court at his house in Chanhassen, near Paisley Park. As I was waiting for him, he came skating around the corner. Well, even then it was important not to ask any questions - just start taking photos. For me, it was just exciting. Look, most artists are stage personalities. In real life, they are not those people.
Everything was real with Prince.
He knew how to be visually dynamic, 24/7.
The most sexy photos of Prince took place during their time together -
later he would publish less suggestive photos, probably also because he is getting older like all of us.
Do you think that Prince would have had completely different pictures taken had it not been you but a woman who took his picture?
No. Prince didn't look at the world like that. He was open to everything. He didn't make his look any different just because I was a man. He did what he did. He didn't care about gender. Look, as a live musician, Prince didn't make a distinction between performing for men and women. Prince didn't take the pictures for me.
I was the lens that captured the image he wanted to convey to the world.
(This is a translation into English, some details may be lost or misstated.)