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22 October 2013

Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do (Part 2): Steve Parke Talks 2 Beautiful Nights


  Steve Parke is a true renaissance man.
  He is best known to Prince fans as the creator of the Grafitti Bridge album cover, designer of the "Glam Slam" music video set and  photographer behind many pictures of Prince and associated artists throughout the 1990s. In addition to photography, Parke has also done acting, graphic design, drawing, painting, has past journalism experience and created graphic novels.
  A chance meeting with Levi Seacer in the late 1980s set Parke on a course of events that culminated with him being hired as art director at Prince's Paisley Park studio complex in Chanhassen, Minn. That opportunity led to various work with artists like Chaka Khan, fDeluxe, Wendy and Lisa and David Bowie, among others.
  More recently, Parke did the photo illustrations for "Psych's Guide to Crime Fighting for the Totally Unqualified," a companion book to the USA Network TV show "Psych," released earlier this year. "Medusa's Daughter," a graphic novel he created with Jonathon Scott Fuqua, is set for wide release in December, and is currently available at He also does freelance photography for corporations and individuals.
  He is currently working with the band fDeluxe (formerly The Family) on artwork for their new covers album which is tentatively set for release at the end of 2013 and a children's book that will come out sometime next year.
  K Nicola Dyes conducted an in-depth interview with Parke last month for "Dyes Got the Answers 2 Ur ?s," where the Baltimore resident discussed his original career path, his childhood in the Washington D.C. area and the chain of events that led to him working for Prince:

Part II

On photography...

  When I capture a moment in time, I'm very aware that moment will never repeat again. I've had a hard time sometimes between being in the moment and capturing the moment. People say "Oh, you didn't bring your camera?" No. I actually just wanted to enjoy myself. 
  I enjoy taking pictures at events, but, honestly, my iPhone camera is the best thing ever. It's quick and it's easy. It allows you to be in the moment, capture the moment and then move on. There's no being in the moment when you've got a couple of cameras, lenses and lights.
  You're waiting for the opportunity to capture something, so, you're really not in the moment at all. I think the big thing is that I realized I'm here now, enjoy it now, because, it's going to change into something else. It will be a different just a moment.

  I'm terrible at networking, I'm trying to get better at it. I know all these people and I never think to myself "Hey, I wonder if they can use what I do?" I just don't think like that. I think, if they need what I do, they'll call me. But, sometimes, it's just about keeping connections.
  I think things are interconnected. They all lead into each other in ways. They may be small ways, but, they always click together. It's like whatever path you go down, it could lead back to you. I've been not the best at not taking advantage of those things. When I worked at Paisley Park, I met a lot of people and I never thought "I should give them my card." 
I was at a job I enjoyed at that point. Why ask for more work when I could barely do the work I had to do? 
  I didn't take advantage of those opportunities (like) I probably should have. I'm not complaining, because, I continue to get new opportunities. I just have to keep my eyes open and I'm going make sure to take advantage of those opportunities.

  When I take pictures of everyday people, I try to make them look like superstars. I like to give everybody the opportunity to look like a rock star, but, I understand that's not the goal of every photo.
 I find the mindset in photography is that you're "taking pictures." If you're shooting doctors, you're just shooting doctors. You make them look like doctors. I want them to look like "rock-star doctors." I'm not talking about instruments. I want the person to look the best they can and I want them to feel happy with the photo when they get it.
  One thing about shooting people who are not in the media, or don't their picture taken all the time, is that most people hate the way they look. I think a lot of this perception comes from (their) families. Somebody, somewhere, told this woman I'm taking a picture of—who's stunning—that she has a bad smile. I'm like "Really? Let me have you smile for minute and take a quick picture."
   I don't get it. But, people get damaged along the way by little things-- probably just a brother who said "Oh, you shouldn't smile that big, your teeth are gross," or something like that. They might have been five years old and they take it to heart.   
   When I shoot someone, I want to bring out the best in them. I don't like taking "ugly" pictures of people. What I mean by that is that with some photographers, their goal is take a style of photography; the style is more important than the person. 
The photography is great unto itself, (but), to me, the person and having them feel good about themselves in the shot are the important things. 
  I do retouch people (in Photoshop), but, I tell people I retouch them to look like they're having the best day of their lives. I don't alter people, so, it doesn't look like them. I hate that, too. I don't understand how some photography has gotten to the point where people get airbrushed and sliced up to a point where they don't look like human beings anymore. What's the point, unless that is truly your goal-- "I'm going for making people into aliens." Okay, that's cool, I get that. 
  I started off drawing when I was a kid. I drew the actors and musicians that I really liked. I always put them in a positive light. I like to make people look good, but, still look like themselves. Unless you're going for something dramatic, and even then you can fix things up a little bit.
  Stanley Clarke told me, he said, "Man, you make middle-aged people look good." I said "Well, because, at this point I am a middle-aged person." But, I've always had that goal in mind, I don't want someone looking like crap. I see portrait photography, where certain photographers go for a very grungy look. Again, I don't mind doing (that) occasionally if it calls for it, but, as a style, I'm never trying to make people look bad. 
  I had a woman tell me when I was showing her some of my work "You know what I love about your work? Everything is beautiful, what you're shooting, it's all pretty. Even some of the darker stuff, it's got some beauty to it... A lot of people don't think like that anymore." 
  She had previously been an actress and was then married to Art Modell, former owner of the (Baltimore) Ravens, for a long time. Most people don't necessarily share what they think when we're together. I'm not asking them to, but, she did. 
  I hadn't really thought about it until then. I realized that's true. I think it influenced my photography and drawing. I believe that what I listened to, musically, growing up, determined a lot how I think about things in other areas; like (my) personal philosophy and the way I do my work.
 I grew up in a era when the music was very positive, especially R&B. Even when rap initially kicked in, it was positive, because, it was social commentary.  Or rappers talked about how many women they had, how much money they had or how many cars they had. It wasn't just saying how bad things were.

  When I take photographs of women, I'm always amazed at the things they'll say about their looks. I'm sitting with these absolutely beautiful women and they will definitely be picky about how they look. It's so funny to me. But, I think that's society talking a little bit.
 I always say guys could come in there and say "I look great. I look good." They could be just the slobbiest, nastiest guy in the world. The most beautiful woman in the world will look in the mirror and see a small pimple that nobody else will see and say "I cannot go out today." It's an exaggeration, of course, but, it's kind of like that.
  You can't tell someone that their opinion isn't valid. They see themselves as they see themselves. That gets into talking to someone and saying "What do you like and what don't you like about the photo?" and try to look at that when you're shooting. If someone says "I don't like that angle," you don't shoot at that angle. Give them what they think makes them look good. 

   When I'm doing the graphic novels, I end up being a one-man art department: I story board them, I costume them and I work with my writer who helps me cast them. Then when I'm photographing, it's a lot like directing, because, I have to direct people (to) what I'm looking for emotionally. 
  Once I photograph it, I put it all onto your background, then design it on top of that. I end up wearing a lot of hats. I'd like to take that into maybe making small films. I think I could do it. I'm capable as a director. I've worked with people who had no acting skills. They're not actors and I've managed to make them work in the realm of graphic novels. I had to pull a lot of emotion out of them for the stories that I was doing.

On working with musicians...

  I've gotten to meet a lot of people. I shot at a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute in Washington D.C. that Stevie Wonder hosted. Man, I'm telling you: The Pointer Sisters, of course Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Jeffrey Osbourne, Patti LaBelle, I got to meet all those people, it was real cool.

   (I) actually shot Rhonda Smith and Kat Dyson at the same time, in one of their apartments, I don't remember whose. We just set it up, shot (photos) and it was really fun. 
  That's the kind of thing I love sometimes. It's not like you have a whole studio or anything: you set up in somebody's place, you're just shooting and you have no specific use for (the photos). You're just trying to choose any cool shots that you can. That's pretty much what we did.
   They had both been in the music industry for a while, but, were fairly new working with Prince. I don't know if they knew what direction he wanted the photos to go. So, we just tried a lot of stuff.

  I shot David Bowie live (in concert). I (also) did T-shirt artwork for him. (After) doing a T-shirt for Prince, I got the opportunity to do T-shirts for The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Jon Bon Jovi and Bowie's T-shirt for the 
 "Sound and Vision" Tour . It was crazy.
   I (also) shot the show, which was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I sent (the photos) up to the company that (made) the T-shirts and never saw them again. (It) happens that way sometimes. 
  I did a photo shoot (where) I have shots of someone wearing them (the T-shirts). There's some hangers with the shirts hanging on them and I turned the photo black and white, except for the T-shirts, to make them pop a little bit. I think I might have posted it on Facebook, but, it was a while back. I have copy of every shirt I've ever done. 
   (Bowie) signed an album for me, but, I didn't get a chance to meet him. 

  I was going to do a tour shirt for (Paul McCartney). His ideas were very much like (like the work of) the guy who did all The Grateful Dead album covers. In the long run, Paul McCartney figured he could just hire the guy that did The Grateful Dead album covers and that's what he did. 
 One of the nice things for me was I could look at a style and replicate things in that style if I wanted to. It was cool from that perspective. I had the opportunity to show him the drawings. He liked my ideas. It was just "Wait, (I) want it to look a Grateful Dead album cover, I could just hire that guy." 
  Yes he could. He's Paul McCartney.
  Sheila E. and I have still never done a formal photo session.  We want to and what keeps happening is that sometimes I call her and say "Hey, I'm in L.A." and she says "Hey, I'm in Washington D.C." I'm like "What? How does that happen?" 
  We did do a short, fun little shoot when she was performing with the Dave Koz & Friends Christmas show down at the Strathmore (a venue in North Bethesda, Maryland), which is 45 minutes away from me. My son and I went down and shot photos of her in between sets. We actually got some good stuff out of that.
   I still really want to do a straight-up photo session with her. We were thinking of it on this new album she's got coming out. It ended up not working out. She said "Tell me what I should be doing." So, I actually drew it and out, (including the) lighting set up and she actually got someone to take the pictures. That's art direction right there. You say "Here's what I need" and have somebody else do it. 
  I really want to do a shoot with her, she's so much fun as a person. It's funny, she does a lot of serious work, but, she has such a great smile. I really want to work her smile. 
  She knows I want to do pictures with her and she wants to do pictures with me. I think it's just a matter of time.

 When the fDeluxe (Gaslight album) came around Paul Peterson (the group's co-lead singer) said "Do you want to do this?" I said "If I don't get to do this, I will feel very bad about it." 
  I was one of those people where The Family album was just a great record for me. When I first heard they doing it, I really wanted to be involved. Yet, I was a little hesitant in a way, too. How were they going to make that work? As a fan of the first record I can easily say they made a record as good and in some ways better. I could simply say nothing it this wasn't true.
   I'm taking it from a purely musical standpoint. It's hard to beat the things you grew up with. When you go back and listen to the music you grew up with, you say "Well, maybe on some levels, it wasn't as good as I thought it was. But, it's still what I grew up with. I have a sentimental attachment to it." I definitely had that for that record, so, I was very worried. 
  Those guys are all great. It's hard enough if you've just done a record, then a year later you're trying to do a second record. But, that many years later sometimes can be more difficult.  They really managed to capture it. I'm sure not everybody agrees with that, but, that's how I feel. I felt they did a really great job. I feel like they listened to what they did and grew. 
   Getting an opportunity to do the (album) artwork was great. I really wanted to do something that complimented the last record, but, not try to do black and white specifically, because, I thought that would have been a little cheesy. I liked that, but, I just really felt like if you're trying to involve your (fans) and also pick up new audiences, you're going to have to move your look into something contemporary. You can't just bite off something that's (more than) 25 years old.
  I definitely liked the drama of the initial record, I was trying to capture some of that and do it in color. I wanted to have a "What's going on? What's the story behind this?" picture. One of the things about Susannah (Melvoin, co-lead singer of fDeluxe) being on the cover, is that you can read that facial expression many different ways. I liked the fact that someone who didn't know the band, wouldn't necessarily  know she was the lead singer. 
  I explained it once and it's true: If you put a woman as art men can appreciate it and women can appreciate it.  It's one of the reasons, artistically why female figures have been very popular throughout the ages, because, they appeal more broadly. That's a time-honored thing. I felt like I wanted somebody up there, (so) instead of just trying to promote the band as a band, it was promoting something (where) you didn't know quite what it was.
  You're going have the people who will pick up the record no matter what. But, I wanted people who are maybe on the fence to take a listen to it. That's sort of what I was going for with that particular image. 
  The next album, the covers record, may be completely different, it might not have any people on the cover. We haven't set that in stone, but, I took a lot of photos of different stuff. It might be a little more--I don't know if abstract is the right word. We'll see how that goes, we don't know yet.

  I shot Wendy and Lisa for the Heroes Soundtrack and it was just a fun day of shooting. I had a great time with them. I love both of them.
  I had a really had a good time photographing them. They are really great people and extremely beautiful women inside and out.  It was a nice collaborative thing where I could talk to them about what I wanted to get or what I was looking for. Then they could give me ideas about what they wanted and go for all of those things. It's fun when you get to collaborate with the artist and bounce ideas off each other. You're probably noticing that I like to collaborate and it's funny because, I don't get much opportunity to do it in what I do. But, I really like it. 


  I grew up loving Chaka Khan's music and her voice. (It was) another opportunity to shoot somebody I never thought I would get to shoot-- just like Larry Graham, whom I ended up shooting around the same time. (He was) another one I grew up listening to. It was great. Those were cool gifts for me by way of working for Prince.
  Chaka was funny, because, she had her stylist and all that stuff. She came out, we shot and I showed her the stuff. She said "Yeah, I like it." I said "Do we need to shoot anymore?" She said "I don't know, do we need to shoot anymore?" I said "I'm happy with what I got." She said "Okay. Wow. It took less time to shoot than it took me to get ready."
   I do photograph quickly. I try to move people through their photo shoots quickly, because, I know most people, even if they need to get photos, don't want to spend a bunch of time taking pictures. They want to be done, they have other things to do and some people simply hate the process. 
  I've worked with musicians who really hate that part of it. But, (they) also know an essential part of what they do is to have that "image." That was a case where I made it quick. 

  Getting to shoot (Prince) was really fun. As a kid, I would draw pictures from photographs that other people had taken of him. It's cool, because, I see people drawing pictures of Prince from photos that I've taken of him. He was someone that really moved and he knew how to look at the camera.
  I like the shots I took of him at the Chanhassen Arboretum. They were outdoors and they were a little outside of what you saw out of Prince. Looking back, there are a lot of photos I wish we had done: some rawer photos; more casual; more juxtaposed and things that you would not expect at all: like having him all dressed with his guitar and everything in a cornfield; or standing with his feet in the ocean; or even in a lake out in Minneapolis, just to do something different and take you by surprise
  That's probably the only thing I wish I was more vocal about. But, a lot of times we would shoot very late, at two or three in the morning. You're always thinking in your head: "You know what would be great? Oh, it's dark outside, never mind."

 Victor Wooten actually let me sing on his last record, which was kind of fun. When I was in theater, I did musicals and I actually sing. Once I stopped doing that, I didn't sing for 20 years, except to my kid when he was a little baby. That was kind of fun and a nice experience, too.
 (Wooten) said "You want to sing on this?" I said "Sure, why not." If it sucked, worst case scenario, he could just not use it. I said "If this is terrible, I will not be offended if you don't use it." He (later) said "It came out great and I put it on the record."     
  Opportunity was a huge part of (working with) Prince; Victor Wooten was in that way, too. The big difference between Vic and Prince is that Vic allowed me to express what I wanted a little more. 
 Vic definitely took input, which was cool. If I thought something was cool, he would ask me why I thought so. I won't say he could be talked into it, but, he would see my point of view and be okay with it. It was not all about his perspective. It's a different thing. 
  Prince definitely worked image with his career. Victor really hadn't done that to my knowledge. I remember telling him, how come you don't have posters at your concerts?" He said "Posters of what?" I said "Posters of you." He said "Man, nobody's gonna buy my picture." I said "Let's do a poster and find out." We made 1,000 posters, they sold out in two or three months on tour. He had to get more done. He was surprised. You know, I didn't get that, but, he never worried about the image part. 

On Life...

  Being self employed is difficult. When I was (initially) self employed, it was just me and my wife and that was one thing. When you bring a child into the world, you want to provide for them and make sure you give them the best things that you can. Suddenly, you worry a lot more about the consistency of the money you're making. It kind of puts a fire under your ass, frankly, about making sure you bring in money.
  But, there are definite benefits: I can go pick my son up from school, if he's sick. I had a shoot the other day and (then) didn't have anything until later in the day, so, I went and saw a movie. If I was in an office situation, I wouldn't be doing that. But, I will admit that's pretty rare.
  Self-employed means that if you're not working on a specific project, you're working to know where the next project is coming from. It's like skydiving without a net and sometimes without a parachute. It feels like that. But, I also wouldn't trade it. 
  I'd like to pick up some teaching gigs or something for a little more income and stability. But, in my heart, I would not trade it for a corporate job. If I had a corporate job where I could make a lot of money in a few years-- I call it "dancing the corporate pole"-- I'd do that for a few years, put money away, then I'd go back out on my own.
   The problem with that is, if you take yourself off the market for a while and people can't get you to work for them, all those contacts dry up. That's a tough thing, too.
  In a way, I had that working for Prince, because, I was on salary. I was out of the pool for a while and I did not have time to take on a lot of other work. When I got back in the world of other things, I had to reestablish myself and that's a lot of work. It's almost like coming up with your second career. But, I was fortunate. I lucked into a whole lot of good things after that.

  I listened to music as kid, I was in theater (and) all these things that happened in my life. I was able to walk into a situation like Paisley Park and do a whole bunch of different things. I know I did some things better  than others, but, that's just the way it is. I would not have had the capacity to deal with that stuff had I not had all those other experiences.
  I think sometimes people focus on one thing and say "If I focus on one thing, that's a good thing." Well, if you're a musician, you've got to practice, but, does that mean you should sit around, talk music to somebody all day and that's all you do?
   If you don't sort of spread yourself out a little bit, so. that you can understand other experiences, you can't communicate.  When I'm talking to musicians, I have to put something to them in a way that makes sense to their brain about music. I always get this: "Well, I don't know how much effort I want to put into my CD package." I say, "Well, do you want people to be attracted to your product? Let's look at it like this: you put all this effort into your album, (and) you've made it really great. Now all people are going to do is put it on terrible 1960s car speakers. Suddenly, all that effort you put into it will just go away, because, they didn't listen to it the way it should have been (listened to)."
  This is what it comes down to, especially when you're trying to do something creative or artistic. You have to put it into their area of expertise, so they can equate (it) to something they already know instead of trying to learn a whole new language.

  The worst trap you can fall into is negative thinking. My son's behind me saying "No, it's not." He said the worst trap you can fall into involves fire ants, slugs and crocodiles. That's a pretty bad trap. That, however, is a one-time trap.

   The best advice is to live life as hard as you can. Just invest in it. (When) I say live hard, I mean do the things you want to; don't hold back. 
 I think people second guess themselves—I certainly know I have. But, I've also found that through sheer persistence of will, I've gotten to do what I wanted to do, even if it all comes around kind of oddly, (and) maybe it's not a straight shot.
 I think some people say "If I think positively, I'll have a straight shot, because, that's what my goals are."  But, sometimes your goals aren't the right goals. Sometimes what happens to you shows you where you should be-- as far as positive things. I don't want to say somebody should be in a gutter, somewhere, if they end up like that. They should not be in a gutter. What I'm saying is, I think if you live like there's no tomorrow and pursue things as hard as you can-- really put your best foot forward-- it's going work out for you. Like I said, it may not be the way you expected.
  When I was in college, I truly expected (to be) doing Broadway shows, be on television or whatever. That's what my goals were at the time. But, life revealed to me, that's not really where (I was) supposed to be and I still ended up doing really, really good things. 
  Something in the universe said "No, no, not that. Come over here." I believe that you can learn from failure. Failure is relative. (When) people say they failed at something, did they fail? Or did they come in at 20 percent of what they wanted? It's not a failure if you learn things. That's a win, because, you learned something now that you can apply later on. I think people forget that. 
  The second part of living life hard... is staying connected with people, staying connected with family and friends. Don't lose that connection. I see a lot people who find themselves being very lonely, (for) no reason at all, except for the fact they got very myopic on whatever they were doing. 
  You want to live life hard, but, include every part of it. Don't just do the job hard. You (also) have to do the family connection, friend connection (and) love connection. One day you'll say "What happened to the last twenty years of my life?" It's true.

On life now and in the future...
  (I live) in Baltimore, now, which I enjoy. I never thought I'd live in a more city type of environment. When I first got into Baltimore, it was like when you see apocalyptic movies: you saw the Waterfront and I was just waiting for the radioactive creatures to come out. That was probably what Baltimore was like when I moved here.
  It's a blue collar town and there (was) a lot of industry that (was) very polluting. I don't think anybody knew that at the time. When you start to see people in white Hazmat suits and full headgear cleaning the water of all the green stuff floating around in it, you know there were some problems. We actually had that, it was actually like some weird science fiction movie. I will say (that) Baltimore has moved past that. It's a different city.


  Medusa's Daughter... my friend Johnathon Scott Fuqua and I came up with (the concept) in 2008. We wanted to do a book that was available in multiple formats, because, kids read in different ways.
  (The books) all have the same basic story, which is about a girl who finds herself in a side show in the 1970s, who can manipulate her hair and make it move. She has been in the sideshow since she was a kid, but, she becomes a teenager and finds out she other powers. She's trying to figure out who she is, where she came from and what her real background is. The guy who owns the sideshow has basically told her lies from birth.
   Teenagers go through this: Who am I? What do I do? Things are changing for them and they don't know how to handle it. (The story) is sort of a corollary between adolescence, but, in a superhuman, or unusual, format. It's something that's slightly outside the norm and more interesting. But, it really deals with issues that teenagers go through. We felt very strongly about a strong female lead character. We wanted to create a strong female character that has bizarre abilities, which would attract boys.
  We designed a prose novel, which is just like a straight novel with no pictures. Then, there's a graphic novel, which, of course, has lots of photos and is treated in a somewhat comic book style-- but, I'm doing photography instead of drawing. Then we have a book that looks more like it's painted. It's for kids with dyslexia and reading issues, so, there are individual pages of painting and less words.  
  We felt (that) what happens to a lot of kids at that age is that they slip through the cracks, because, they have to read down several grades. What happens is the subject matter of the book is not interesting to them at all. But, they are given those books, because, it's at their reading level. It's kind of screwed up. 
     You're in 8th grade or 9th Grade and you're reading something for a 5th grader. You're not going to want to read.  No matter what level you read at, you can read this book. Then, you can discuss it with your friends. It levels the playing field a little bit.
  If a librarian has these books, he or she can target the kids: "Oh, I know this kid likes to read Harry Potter, so, I can give him this prose book, no problem" or "This kid I know, he reads Batman, Superman or Spiderman (comic books). So, he or she might like this."
  If a kid who has reading issues, reads through the first book, a librarian can say to them "The other two books are basically the same idea, but, there's different information about each of the characters in each of the formats." You can tell more of the story or different parts of the story, just by virtue of the type of book it is. 
  We're hoping a kid who has reading issues might challenge themselves by then going to the graphic novel. It has a lot of photos and images in it. It's an easier read. If they get through that, then they can try and read the novel. We made the novel small on purpose, so, it doesn't look so daunting. The trick is that the type is small, so, there's actually a lot of words in there. We want kids to go through it and feel a sense of accomplishment in their reading. 
  On top of that, we simply wanted to make a story that people read and enjoy. It tries to serve some educational purposes without being an educational book.

   In the future, I hope to do more book projects. I hope to see some of the book projects and graphic novels, take off into movies, games or whatever. Multimedia all derives from stories and that's what I'm doing. I'm coming up with all these stories. It's just a matter of finding the time to get them done. I don't have to hold on to them myself. I'll be happy to find someone who wants to run with a story idea and actually make it happen, rather than just do it myself.
   I'd love to keep working with music. The hard part is, what does art for music look like in an era where more things are going digital? You still have to have a cover, but, you don't necessarily need the rest of it. I do think that stuff is going to survive, especially, because, kids are getting into vinyl and things like that. So, there will still be some of that kind of work. I'd like to keep a hand in that, too.

Stay beautiful, Kristi
Check out Steve Parke's official Web site here.
All photos courtesy of Steve Parke Photography Facebook Page. Check it out here.

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  1. Excellent interview, Kristi! Loved the article - Steve gave great insight.