MARCH 3, 2018
ON THE SURFACE, Bruce Springsteen and Prince seem like very different artists.
Fond of lace, purple stage suits, and playing with listeners’ notions of race and gender, one was a funkified product of Minneapolis, who channeled James Brown, Chuck Berry, and his own brilliance into a new form of rock and soul music. The other was a rocker born in working-class New Jersey with a poet’s soul, given to wearing T-shirts and leather jackets while whipping crowds into a near-religious frenzy with his E Street brothers-in-arms.
But what became clear to me, after reading photo books devoted to both men — Afshin Shahidi’s Prince: A Private View and Frank Stefanko’s Bruce Springsteen: Further Up the Road — is that these musical legends also cared deeply about how they were photographed. And they spent a lot of time considering how those photos might fit into the artistic images they were trying to convey to the public in their music.
Assembled by talented photographers lucky enough to spend lots of time with each artist at crucial moments in their career, each book is, in different ways, a fan’s dream. Shahidi was Prince’s personal photographer for years, progressing from a job loading film into cameras at a 1993 video shoot to making the picture that became the cover of the 2006 album 3121; he even shot the star’s passport photo.
Stefanko made his most important photos of Springsteen early in his career, when the scrappy kid from Freehold, New Jersey, was making records that would become a part of rock history. Stefanko was a music fan and photographer working a day job at a meat-packing plant in 1978 when Patti Smith recommended him to Springsteen. He would wind up shooting photos of The Boss and his E Street Band off and on for the next 40 years, including, at one of their first shoots, the picture of Springsteen sitting on a Corvette that was used as the cover of his autobiography, Born to Run. It is Stefanko’s work, of course, that graces the covers of seminal Springsteen records Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) and The River (1980).
Stefanko’s collector’s edition copy — with copper edging on the pages and a slick presentation — seems big and solid enough to actually be a coffee table, with high-grade paper and vivid reproductions of photographs. Its high-class packaging is a little at odds with the working-class hero depicted inside — an expensive tribute that Springsteen himself likely couldn’t have afforded back in the days when the pictures were first taken.
The collection has three forewords, written by Springsteen and photogs Danny Clinch and Eric Meola, and the book itself features a close-up portrait focusing on the face of a young Springsteen from the days of the Darkness shoot. The back cover features a sixtysomething Springsteen in a photo taken in 2017. The implication is clear: there’s a journey between these two covers, from the impatient young talent up front to the wizened, experienced superstar on the back end.
The Springsteen who gazes back at the camera from 1978 is less certain and less weary, a brooding bundle of energy who looks almost uncomfortable when he smiles. But his charisma seems to fill any space he’s in, making the flowery wallpaper on the cover of Darkness, a minor feature of Stefanko’s bedroom at the time, look like an artistic statement.
The book also shows that Springsteen had a keen eye for photographic detail, calling Stefanko, in one case, from Los Angeles with suggestions on how to crop the images that would be used for The River. Stefanko also notes that Springsteen would bring changes of clothes to photo sessions, even ones where the finished products would evoke a disheveled carelessness — a tribute to Springsteen’s shrewd sense of his own image.
Such stories suggest that however offhand and casual he might look in photos wearing jeans, T-shirts, and leather jackets, Springsteen was always aware of the visuals he was creating to match the power of his music. “There are times you just aim the camera, and let Bruce do the rest,” Stefanko writes, noting Springsteen’s “Al Pacino hair” in the photos they first took around his Haddonfield, New Jersey, home. Springsteen saw it a little differently: “[Stefanko’s] talent was he managed to strip away your celebrity, your artifice, and got to the raw you,” the musician writes, admiring the “street poetry” of his images. The power of Stefanko’s work is that both of these observations appear equally true. Some intimation of the “real Bruce” seems to mingle among the otherwise carefully posed selections.
Stefanko, though, does present so many shots from single sittings (50 pages alone are devoted to photos from Springsteen’s first visits to his home) that some inclusions seem like filler. Many of these photos simply feature Springsteen standing around: on a porch, in an alley, on a rooftop, or inside a house. Repetitive content aside, the pictures still translate The Boss’s charm, whose power emanates from his face — inscrutable and scrappy, with a sense of the fame and success waiting just around the corner.
It is much the same with Prince, judging by the array of photos in Shahidi’s collection. It’s not just the greatness of his musical talent that makes him a world-shaking superstar; his native charisma is almost palpable, even in photos taken years ago.
“I’ve watched Prince enter many a room and it’s always the same,” Shahidi writes. “You could be the guy working the bar or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company […] The moment Prince enters the room you are all the same, mouths slightly agape, eyes tracking the movements of the dynamo who just appeared.” That force, that confidence, that thing that separates superstars from the rest of us is what Shahidi shows off, time and again, in the photos chosen for his book.
The book itself, however, feels misnamed. Though it is subtitled “A Private View,” and offers a look at Prince in many different settings, it rarely feels like we’ve pierced his privacy. Of course, this is a guy who put on makeup and primped himself to take that passport photo. But there are few shots in this collection where Prince (or Shahidi) reveals anything more than the well-put-together professional entertainer we’ve ogled for decades.
On the one hand, Shahidi’s access is amazing. There are awesome photos of the legendary 3121 parties Prince held at rented mansions in Los Angeles, with guest lists that included Stevie Wonder, Queen Latifah, Sam Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Salma Hayek, Matthew McConaughey, Joni Mitchell, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and many, many more notables.
On the other, the promise of more candid details falls short. He tells a wonderful story, for example, of getting a call from Prince while they’re out on tour, asking him to put on a suit and be ready for an excursion. They wind up at a Jehovah’s Witnesses hall in Japan together. It sounds like the start of a telling moment; Shahidi’s status as the sole witness to the experience seems to speak volumes. But there are no photos of these moments in the book. Once again, the “private view” of the man behind the images never fully materializes.
Turning pages, I found myself asking more questions. Who makes all these wonderfully custom-tailored suits Prince wears in every photo? Why did Shahidi and Prince stop working together regularly in 2011?
Of course, the biggest question involves the manner of Prince’s death from a drug overdose and the question of whether he hid an addiction from friends, employees, relatives, and the world. Shahidi doesn’t reference this at all, beyond a short essay describing his trip to Prince’s funeral. No doubt, Prince was an incredibly talented musician with a strategy of surrounding his work and life with a mystique that only added to his legend.
One gets the impression that, often by omission, much of the real life of Prince Rogers Nelson was carefully hidden. Getting more insight into that process from a photographer who followed him around for nearly 10 years — especially in light of this huge secret he seemed to have kept from the world — would have made the book even more compelling.
Both books feel like memorials. It’s beyond poignant for fans to see departed E Street bandmembers like Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici in group photos, looking young and ready for trouble, decades before their deaths. Likewise, Shahidi’s book features photos of drummer John Blackwell, who died in 2017, and The Artist himself, always looking at least 10 years younger than he actually was, decked out in clothes that were at once unorthodox, stylish, and completely unique in sensibility.
Ultimately, each of these editions is a serious love letter to fans, filled with enough insider knowledge and details about pivotal events to entice the devoted. But they also provide a look at how Prince and Bruce Springsteen developed the visual styles that became integral parts of their careers — showing times when the biggest superstars in pop music needed little more than a talented collaborator with a sense of adventure and a camera to turn their innate charisma and image-consciousness into iconic photos.
Eric Deggans is NPR’s TV critic and a board member and judge for the Peabody Awards. He is the author of Race-Baiter: How Media Wield Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism, and sexism fuel some elements of modern media.