prince-deborah-feingold
Photo: Deborah Feingold

Contact High: Fourteen Frames of Prince

In the series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.

Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”

We caught up with photographer Deborah Feingold to take us backstage with Prince Rogers Nelson – known the world as the rock legend Prince – who would have been 59 years old today.

 

New York 1980

“I arrived early and with my heart pounding went directly behind the stage to the dressing room. I knocked lightly on the door, half hoping no one would hear it, but they did.”  In 1980, Photographer Deborah Feingold was on assignment with The Soho Weekly News to capture a gig at The Bottom Line, a small venue in New York’s Greenwich VIllage. Prince was 22-year old kid from Minneapolis with some buzz. Feingold knocked on the backstage door and a large man cracked open the door.

“The editors said to me, ‘This is this guy from Minneapolis. There’s a lot of buzz on him so get some concert shots. And try to go backstage.’ ”

“I was freaking out because no one had arranged it. I was a mess. I blurted out that I was a photographer and wanted to take a portrait of Prince.  The guy at the backstage door told me that Prince didn’t allow that and with great relief on my part, he said no.” remembers Feingold.  “I thanked him and ran back to the front of the stage. The opening act was on and I was snapping away when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the same man that had told me, just a few minutes before, that I could not photograph Prince. He signaled me to follow him.  I did, right back to the dressing room.  He said that since I was had taken his refusal so politely,  he was going to allow me to take a few shots.”

Feingold only shot 14 frames that day and the entire shoot only took about 4 minutes. The images are intimate and unposed. And  so damn vulnerable. This was Dirty Mind and Controversy Prince. An open to there silk-shirted and wavy-haired Prince reclines on a couch.

Another frame shows him playfully teasing a V-sign on his eye. Looking the camera dead in the eye. Like you can feel the photographer on the other side of the lens. In fact, Feingold and Prince were both incredibly shy and there was barely a word exchanged during the course of this shoot.

To make Prince feel comfortable, Feingold offered for Prince to take a shot of her sitting on the same couch, which he did, taking one image before handing the camera back to her. (Hey girl…)

“They put us in a tiny room, just me and him. I was very nervous. I get Prince on the couch and shoot him horizontally, vertically, tight shots. We didn’t talk,” recalls Feingold. “And then I look at him and go, ‘Why don’t you take a picture of me?’ So now I have a photo of me by Prince.

“It was almost 40 years ago, yet I can still remember how I felt and the energy in that room.  Never felt it again, not with anyone—and I have been lucky to have worked with some pretty amazing individuals.”

 

deborah-feingold
Photo: Deborah Feingold

Feingold was still a kid herself when she shot these photos of his purple highness. She had moved to New York City from Boston while still in her mid-20s, having learned how to develop film and make prints from her dad while still a kid.

Arriving in New York, she promptly landed a job at the famed Magnum photo agency working in the library filing photos from some of her photographic heroes including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. She would go on to shoot for a burgeoning jazz label, Artists House,  shooting Chet Baker and other jazz greats. Over the course of her career, Feingold would have the chance to photograph legends like Miles Davis, The Ramones, James Brown and President Obama

The Shoot

prince-contact-sheet
Photo: Deborah Feingold

“The room was small and the two of us just looked at each other and smiled.  Prince was sitting on a small couch and there was no place for me to move but in front of him.  I backed up as much as I could and quietly started to shoot.  He changed his position a few times, but we barely spoke except for a few movement suggestions on my part.  After 12 frames, I stopped and asked him if he would like to take a picture of me, which he did. He handed me back my camera after one frame and I snapped one more picture as he walked out to go onto the  stage. A total of 14 frames.

“Allan Tannenbaum was the photo editor of the Soho Weekly News and he assigned this shoot to me. Allan asked me to take concert shots and then, almost as an afterthought,  asked me to try and get backstage and take some portraits.  That’s when I panicked. Usually the newspaper or magazine made those arrangements and having to do this myself was so out of my comfort zone.  I liked assignments because those arrangements were made for you and I was very shy at that time.

“The Bottom Line was great place to listen to music because of its size; big enough for well established acts to appear but small enough that you felt an intimacy with the artists and their music.  There was also a certain protocol for the freelance photographers when you shot at that club.  There were poles on either side of the side of the stage, about 50 feet back from the stage. If you were smart you’d show up early and get in position in front of one of those poles because it was the best angle to shoot from and every shooter wanted those spots. This way you were never in the way of the audience and you could shoot the entire show undisturbed.”

The Shot

prince-feingold-contact-high
Photo: Deborah Feingold

“The backstage shots of him on the couch were obviously the most intimate and almost vulnerable. He didn’t pose or anything which made for a very real portrait.

“I think I was still overwhelmed by the experience and excited to share them with my editor. I also shot the concert that night so I submitted both sets of shots.”  

The Camera Nerd-Out

Nikkormat and on-camera flash.  Developed and printed in my bathroom.

The Q+A

What was your career like at the time of this shoot? Were you shooting a lot of music artists?

I was working for the Village Voice, Soho Weekly News and Musician magazine mostly so my work was very diversified, often out of the ordinary and always exciting.

 

What made you first want to become a photographer?

There was an Eclipse enlarger from the 1940s in my basement that my dad used as a hobby and I asked him to teach me when I was 12 years old. Love at first development!

What are your favorite type of subjects to shoot and why?

I always consider every assignment a challenge and always present a unique set of circumstances. For work I shoot people but for my personal work I tend to be attracted to images where something is slightly off.

What was your first camera you used and what is your favorite camera to use now? Do you shoot digital as well as analog?

An inexpensive fixed lens rangefinder. The name eludes me. I shoot only digital right now.

What do you miss about the darkroom process?

The intimacy of the slow reveal.

In a larger sense what are some creatives, artists, experiences or people that have had an impact on how you approach your work?

It began with jazz musicians and the freedom that they inspired within me.

I am fairly holistic in that anything can inspire me and sometimes it comes out of the most unexpected place/people/circumstances.

Let’s talk about this concept of “pose” in hip hop and music culture in general. These images of Prince feel very natural and vulnerable in contrast to how a lot of artists pose themselves. Can you talk further about this?

I think playing and sharing his music was the only reason Prince was there that night and I don’t think that ever changed. Success, fame, fortune, notoriety, none of that, I believe, was ever a part of why he did what he did.

Follow Deborah Feingold on her website, Facebook and Instagram and check out her book Music (2014, Damiani)

The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.

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